Will a Canada-China Free Trade Agreement mean cargo ships in the Northwest Passage?

With 90 per cent of China's goods exported by ship, a Trudeau cabinet decision expected in October on pursuing a Canada-China Free Trade Agreement, climate change melting northern waters, and the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, recently completing a voyage through the Northwest Passage, it is worthwhile thinking about the impact of cargo ship traffic in the Arctic, notably the risks of oil spills and ship emissions on Indigenous peoples, the ocean and marine life.

The Globe and Mail reports, "China's official government news agency says Beijing used a scientific icebreaker voyage through Canada's Northwest Passage to test the viability of sailing Chinese cargo ships through the environmentally fragile route that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Xinhua News Agency, often used to deliver messages on behalf of the Chinese state, lauded the Sept. 6 completion of the first-ever Chinese voyage through the Arctic waterway, saying the Snow Dragon icebreaker 'accumulated a wealth of experience for Chinese ships going through the Northwest Passage in the future'."

The article highlights Xinhua reporting, "From Shanghai to New York, the traditional route that passes through the Panama Canal is 10,500 nautical miles, while the route that passes through the Northwest Passage is 8,600 nautical miles, which saves 7 days of time."

The article also quotes University of Calgary Professor Rob Huebert who says, "[The Chinese] are preparing for a very substantial increase in the amount of shipping. It is obvious this is going into the planning to a degree that we don't see in Western shipping companies. They have given us clear notice this is going to happen."

As far back as March 2010, University of British Columbia Professor Michael Byers commented, "China's major interest concerns the shipping routes being opened by the melting sea-ice. Different routes will be used depending on origins and destinations: Liquefied natural gas from the Barents Sea will be sent to Shanghai through Russia's Northern Sea Route; luxury German cars will go straight 'over the top'; and Chinese goods headed for the eastern US will use the Northwest Passage."

And in September 2014, The Financial Post reported, "A newly released report, commissioned by the Alberta government last year, by Arctic petroleum consultants Canatec Associates International Ltd. ... suggests that getting oil-sands bitumen to the Far North port of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., could be a cheap, efficient and effective way to get Alberta’s landlocked bitumen to oil-hungry Asia." One related proposal is the 100,000 barrel-per-day 'Arctic Gateway' pipeline, a 2,400 kilometres long pipeline from the tar sands of northern Alberta through the Mackenzie Valley to the port of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean.

As for 'free trade' deals, the National Post recently reported, "While all eyes are on NAFTA, Canada is trying to move quickly on trade in the Asia-Pacific, with decisions on a China free trade agreement and an updated Trans-Pacific Partnership coming this fall."

With respect to the Canada-China FTA, the newspaper notes, "According to a Canadian government official familiar with the matter, formal exploratory talks with China wrapped up in July. Officials are crunching numbers and are expected provide analysis to trade minister François-Philippe Champagne before the end of the month. Cabinet could be discussing a decision by October, and Champagne could be on his way to China in December if there’s a green light, the official said. ...Experts concur talks would likely take multiple years to complete, probably past the next federal election in October 2019."

And with the TPP, the article notes, "A Trans-Pacific Partnership sans Trump is shaping up in earnest, spearheaded by Japan and Canada. Officials are expecting a road map for an agreement will come alongside an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November. The expectation is this would take months, not years, said the official."

We will continue to monitor this situation.