Melting sea ice and warming temperatures in the Arctic will “fundamentally” shift the security challenges facing Canada and NATO allies in the region as Russia and China forge deeper strategic ties, warns the head of the military alliance.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday from a Canadian Forces air base in Cold Lake, Alta., in a press conference that saw both leaders highlighting the need to recognize rapidly changing security threats in the High Arctic.
“Climate change is making the High North more important because the ice is melting and it becomes more accessible — both for economic activity and for military activity,” said Stoltenberg.
“It will require us to transform, fundamentally, our approach to security and defence, and Canada has an unrivalled understanding of this.”
He pointed to Russian remilitarization of their Arctic bases and strong interest from China, which has claimed it is a “near-Arctic” state, as risks that cannot be ignored as the two countries deepen their ties.
The closer relations between Moscow and Beijing come as both governments increasingly seek to challenge the international laws and institutions that form the foundation of global stability and trade following the sharp international retaliation over Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“This forms part of the deep and strategic partnership that challenges our values and interests,” said Stoltenberg. “Our response is a strong and predictable allied presence in the region.”
Trudeau suggested recent months have made it clear that Canada cannot take Arctic security for granted, but emphasized several times that the presence of the NATO chief did not represent a shift in Canadian policy around defence of the region.
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“The geopolitical situation has shifted over the past months, which is why understanding that Russia is an increasing concern to all of us makes it timely for us to share with the secretary general and NATO all the things Canada is doing,” he said. “There is no deep shift in Canadian policy.”
It’s not the first time defence and security leaders have issued such warnings.
In March, the Canadian military’s defence intelligence chief told a parliamentary committee that it is Russia and China that pose the greatest risk to both Canadian and Western interests in the North.
Gen. Michael Wright said that while the risks of a Russian incursion into the Arctic appeared low, the invasion of Ukraine that began on Feb. 24 has “thrown into question” longstanding assertions by Russian President Vladimir Putin about wanting a peaceful zone in the Arctic.
“With the melting of sea ice, access to the region and associated tactics are increasing and this will have a significant impact on the security situation in the Arctic,” Wright said.
Kevin Hamilton, director-general for international security policy with Global Affairs Canada, noted at that same committee that “China may indeed seek to leverage a lot of the new infrastructure the Russians have built in their High Arctic.”
The government has faced pressure over recent years to spend more on defence as NATO allies ramp up defence spending in light of the threat posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Defence Minister Anita Anand described the world as growing “darker” and more “chaotic” at an industry event earlier this year.
In June, she said the government would spend some $40 billion over the next 20 years to modernize North American aerospace defence through the NORAD pact, including $4.9 billion on upgrading radar and surveillance systems to detect incoming threats from aircraft and missiles.
However, there remain questions about where, exactly, that money is coming from, and sources told Global News earlier this year there are significant concerns that the money may need to be re-capitalized from within the existing defence budget.