Analyze the legal and political issues surrounding the historic journey to the Arctic


Chinese sailor Zhai Mo. / CGTN

Chinese sailor Zhai Mo. / CGTN

Editor’s Note: Nong Hong is Executive Director and Senior Researcher at the Institute for China-American Studies. The article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Famous Chinese sailor Zhai Mo and two crew members embarked on a four-month voyage from late June this year, attempting to tour the Arctic for the first time in human history. . However, Canada stopped its sailboat in the Arctic Ocean near Lancaster Sound, part of the Northwest Passage.

This trip does not call into question Canada’s sovereignty or legal status over the Northwest Passage, as a CBC report claims. One of the questions that most worries Canada is whether China will take the same legal position as the United States and the European Union: to treat the Northwest Passage as a “strait for international use” in opposition. to claim Canada as “internal waters.”

In its 2018 White Paper on Arctic Policy, China argues that all Arctic exploration and use activities should be conducted in accordance with treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS ) and the Svalbard Treaty, as well as with general international law. However, the white paper does not address the status of the Northwest Passage and other arctic straits, instead focusing on the considerable opportunities and challenges posed by economic and environmental considerations. So among the five Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States), Canada is most concerned about the implications of the white paper, warning that China’s Arctic policy is trying to draw a line. fine between respecting the sovereignty of the Arctic nations and leaving the possibility of profiting from disputes in international law.

Zhai’s request to go through the Northeast Passage, in order to shorten the distance from the Panama Canal Passage, was rejected by Canada on the basis of its Interim Order No. 3 – Restriction of Navigation pleasure craft due to COVID-19. Subsection 6 (1) of this Order provides that Transport Canada may, in writing, exempt a person from the application of any of the prohibitions set out in this Interim Order in certain circumstances, for example, the Minister of Health, after being consulted, determines that public health and safety and the protection of the marine environment will, to the extent possible, be maintained. Sources in China said Zhai and the other two crew members quarantined themselves before June 30, the tour’s start date, and the risk of the outbreak spreading is extremely low. But it is up to the Canadian authority to define whether this exemption is applicable in the case of Zhai.

A rocky promontory in the Canadian Arctic. / Getty

A rocky promontory in the Canadian Arctic. / Getty

To avoid similar scenarios in the future, the bilateral agreement between the United States and Canada can serve as a solid precedent. The 1988 Arctic Cooperation Agreement stipulates that the United States, without compromising its legal position on the status of the Northwest Passage, must seek Canadian consent for icebreaker navigation in the passage.

More and more states, including China, Japan and South Korea in particular, see the melting Arctic Ocean as a unique opportunity for international trade that will have a measurable effect on their economies due to their dependence on maritime transport. In addition, over the past decade, an increasing number of cruise ships have sought to transit through the Northwest Passage. Zhai’s trip to the Arctic is one of the different categories of non-commercial travel and should not be interpreted as carrying a political agenda.

Section 6 (1) of Interim Order No.3 also encourages Transport Canada to exempt a person from the application of one of the prohibitions if the Minister of Foreign Affairs determines that the exemption is necessary to ensure compliance with Canada’s international obligations or the proper conduct of Canada’s external affairs. Of course, it will be difficult for Zhai’s journey to be defined in this way. However, given the current efforts of the two states to resume or warm up bilateral relations, a positive gesture by Canada to make an exemption for Zhai and his crew can serve this purpose.

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