The Quiet Colossus

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The first decade of the 21st century heralded an era of challenge among the actual and wannabe superpowers girdling the globe – a contest of increasing intensity as the second decade gets under way.

The United States, China, the Russian Federation and the European Union vie for influence in their respective hemispheres.  What is generally referred to as the West hung on to more than 50 per cent of world production (GDP) until 2013, when a tipping point was reached and the newly-formed BRICS union claimed that the four major members – Brazil, Russia, India and China (with South Africa tagging along) – accounted for 51-52 per cent.

Apart from the resolute pursuit of more control of the world’s financial institutions (IMF, World Bank etc.) by the ‘emerging superpowers,’ a regrettable aspect of the Zeitgeist has been the persistent friction between them and the West (and also between each other) due to a variety of causes since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In Asia, China, Russia and India have traditionally been uneasy bedfellows – the great length of joint frontiers and competing cultural and philosophical persuasions engendering periodic disputes – but the dominant feature of conflict since 2000 has been the sharpening rivalry between Russia and the United States.

One might ask oneself why this antagonism should be so renewable, for it is easy to see how cooperation between these two nations would lead to mutual benefit.  Their peoples are not so unalike as they first may seem.  Both are mainly of European ancestry, frontier pioneers, mission-imbued, pragmatic, technically skilled, future-oriented and post-monarchical.  When they meet as persons, as colleagues, as fellow-scientists, as astronauts, they find each other blunt, friendly, congenial, even jolly.

Unfortunately, a Cold War mentality has lingered both in Moscow and Washington.  It is first one thing and then another:  NATO expansion; the war in Iraq; ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; differing views about Iran, Libya and Syria; the Edward Snowden affair; now Ukraine and Crimea.  Angela Stent, in her recent book, “The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian relations in the 21st century,” points out that what Russians crave most is not complete agreement on important issues, but respect from representatives of other nations in conformity with Russia’s land area, economic assets and, above all, her rich and resplendent historical record.  While ancient European nations such as France, Spain and Sweden (formerly superpowers in their own right) recognize such sensitivity, the young, pragmatic American republic is less delicate in her foreign relations, especially with authoritarian regimes.

The future alignment of powers is by no means certain or settled for the coming decades.  The somewhat astonishing growth of the BRICS countries in the 1990s has fostered no little self-confidence and something approaching unity in their stance vis-à-vis the West, but China has never promoted an enduring alliance with any other country during her long history.  Eventual Russo-Chinese rivalry along the Sino-Siberian border is highly probable; Russian economic clout is precariously perched on a wobbly platform of oil-and-gas supply.  India, with her Western connections, is hardly the most reliable partner in growth as she grapples with near-insoluble problems of societal and physical infrastructure while Brazil, already struggling, seems out on a limb geographically and a somewhat incongruous partner for her Eastern hemisphere associates.

Shifts in alliances or economic unions could be multiple, even kaleidoscopic, in the long run.  Humans have a poor record in forecasting even cataclysmic political, military and economic swings and developments.  The Russian Revolution, the First World War and the Depression played havoc with the map of Europe.  The attack on Pearl Harbour, the economic ‘miracles’ of defeated Germany and Japan and the collapse of the Soviet Union were unforeseen, as were the 9/11 shock, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the massive ubiquitous investment of Chinese capital in the United States, Africa and elsewhere.

A world population of 7 billion people unleashes unimaginably powerful currents of growth, development, alliances and face-offs.  Globalists speculate on the growing influence of emerging mini-giants such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Mexico, all with burgeoning 100 million-plus populations.  Also discussed has been a ‘second division’ of promising ‘emergers’ such as South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Turkey and post-mullah Iran.

With so many contenders for pre-eminence, substantial power and influence can only be guaranteed if groupings are sufficiently large to resist domination by a true superpower such as China or the US.  Assuming the BRICS will eventually disband, which are the likely ‘super-blocs’?  Four seem inevitable:

•    China (1.3 billion inhabitants)
•    India (1.3 billion inhabitants)
•    EU (500 million inhabitants)
•    NAFTA (400 million inhabitants)

Who else is there? Japan and Australia would remain close to the US.  The Transatlantic Trade and Development Partnership is likely to be cloned by a Transpacific one which would attract Japan, Australia, S. Korea, the Philippines and possibly other states in S.E. Asia.

Russia will need to join somebody, building on her own Eurasian Customs Union.  For Russia, the EU is a more likely partner than China, India and the US.  Proximity favours Africa leaning towards some attachment with the EU, though China and India put out feelers there where they can.  With all these considerations in mind, what kind of balance emerges between East and West?  Have we forgotten anybody?  Japan, for instance, would add substantial weight to East or West, depending on her affinity with Asia or the US.  Japan’s economy, albeit stagnating around $6,000 billion, is greater than the whole of Latin America’s though her population is 20% and land area 5%.  Japan’s current relations with China suggest that she would favour a Transpacific trading pact before an Asian one.


Maps of the world are usually printed on a flat surface using various kinds of projections based on land surveys, aerial photographs and other sources.  If we open up such a map where Russia and Canada were coloured in a similar manner, we should see that, together with Greenland, they occupy 20% of the earth’s land surface.  Russia’s land area (17 million sq km) appears to dwarf that of her arch-rival the United States (9.373 million sq km) but if we join the US to Canada, the North American territory grows to 19,344,000 sq km and, with Greenland, to 22 million sq km.

On the surface at least, we see an approximate parity of land area between East and West – Russian and American spheres of interest.  Taking Canada into account, how significant is this?  Much of Canada’s northern territory and certainly Greenland have temperatures below freezing point for large parts of the year but have summer – April to September – relatively free from ice and snow.  The same applies to Russian Siberia.  Many people live in Arctic lands and have long exploited the minerals abundant in the area.  Russia’s economy has benefited hugely from oil deposits, gas and a variety of minerals in Siberia.  Canada, with a lower profile, is the world’s leading producer of uranium, potash and zinc ore.  She is 3rd in aluminium, 5th in nickel and in the top ten producers of lead, tin, copper and cobalt ore.  Other resources include gold, silver and precious stones.  Of great significance to Canada’s future include her developing into a major producer of oil, natural gas and shale gas, as well as having 7% of the world’s fresh water.  Her sources of hydro-electricity are limitless.  Canada is the 6th largest producer of world energy.  She ranks 7th in wheat harvests.

Abundance of commodities and vast natural resources are not the only considerations that qualify Canada for quasi-superpower status.  She has a multi-faceted robustness ingeniously disguised by the unpretentious, almost homely role she plays in world affairs.  She is not big just in area: her GDP is bigger than that of the whole of South and Central America (excluding Brazil) and equals that of mighty Russia!  Her GDP per capita stands at over $50,000, exceeding that of the United States and any other major power! (USA $48,312, Japan $45,903, Germany $44,021, France $42,319, UK $39,974, Italy $36,130)

When it comes down to business, her all-round ratings are formidable.  Third in the world in listed domestic companies, she has the 5th largest stockmarket capitalisation, ranks 9th in industrial output (actually 15th in car production!), is the world’s 10th biggest exporter and trader of goods, has the world’s 5th longest road and rail networks (passenger and freight) and is 5th in global competitiveness.

While Canada has the 5th best business environment on the planet, her standards of quality of modern life are equally impressive.  Canadians have more computers per capita than any other nationality (130 per 100 people), are 13th in patent registrations, 7th in world peace, 8th lowest in corruption, 3rd in gender equality and 3rd in giving to others!

Canada, multilingual and multicultural, with favourable demographics and substantial economic freedom, is destined to exercise far greater influence amid the great powers than she hitherto has chosen to do: laid back and universally popular (who hates Canadians?), protected on either side by two great oceans and with access to a slowly-warming third, and with a friendly neighbour to the south, Canada can choose her friends and partners with little fear of being rebuffed.

No two countries in the Arctic region share so much in common as Canada and Russia.  A map of the Arctic Ocean with the North Pole at its centre shows that the ocean is virtually closed by the coastal areas of Russia, Canada and Greenland.  By far the largest Arctic nations, Canada and Russia – neighbours across the North Pole – bear a shared responsibility for the state of affairs in the region and must see each other as strategic partners.  Dr. Natalia Loukacheva, Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, points out that both countries share a common legal framework for the management of the Arctic waterways and sees transportation, both maritime and aeronautic, as being an obvious area of bilateral cooperation.  For instance, Canada could join Russia’s effort to modernise the Northern Sea Route by offering aid and working to develop the Northwest Passage.

Russia has exploited the Arctic for centuries.  About one-fifth of the Russian landmass lies above the Arctic Circle.  Two million of her people live there.  Cooperation with Western nations, though rare, is not new.  Russians and Norwegians share Spitsbergen and the two nations have managed fisheries in the Barents Sea.  In 1997, Russia ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea.  She also planted a Russian flag on the sea-bed under the North Pole in 2007.  When the US and Canada complained, Russian minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the event as only symbolic and confirmed that Arctic issues should be tackled solely on the basis of International Law.  In 2008, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States met in Ilulissat, Greenland to hold the Arctic Ocean Conference which stated in the Ilulissat Declaration that any demarcation issues in the Arctic should be resolved on a bilateral basis between contesting parties.  An example of such bilateral agreement was reached between Russia and Norway in 2010.

The warming of the Arctic Ocean and the subsequent opening up of a myriad of opportunities for oil and gas exploration and exploitation has transformed the Arctic area from being a remote, largely inaccessible, frozen wilderness into a likely rapidly-developing resource bonanza for Canada, Russia, Greenland and the United States.  The rapidly-receding ice in the Arctic Ocean exposes the prospect of early negotiations between Russia and Canada, the major stakeholders, with regard to agreeing the bilateral delineation of the continental shelf.  If the question of overlapping entitlements on the shelf can be resolved amicably, though it may take several months or even years, then many other possible disputes may well disappear.  One of the keys to reaching a successful resolution is the well-known Canadian skill-set in reasoned negotiating.  This has long been observable in international business teams as well as in the realms of politics and diplomacy.  There are not the same bones of contention between Canada and Russia as there are between Russia and the United States.  Canada and Russia have many commonalities that are reflected in their Arctic identity, Arctic expertise in technologies and challenges in survival in the hostile north.

While Russia has clearly manifested her intense interest in her two main aims in Arctic development – oil and gas exploration and northern transportation routes – Canada’s stake is also huge.  Her experience in different parts of the country (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, Mackenzie Delta and the Far North) has given her unrivalled expertise in petroleum and gas exploration.  Canadians have drilled some of the world’s deepest offshore wells (Annapolis G24 gas well (20,000 ft); they also built the world’s largest oil platform (Hibernia GBS) and have developed extremely specialized drilling systems in the Beaufort Sea.  For millions of years, sediments have been pouring out of the mouth of the Mackenzie River, creating tremendous banks of sand and shale – laminates of sedimentary rock warped into promising geological structures.  As early as 1977, its established gas reserves were 200 billion cubic metres.  According to a US Geological Survey, there are 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas north of the Arctic Circle, as well as over 90 billion barrels of oil.  Estimates of oil and gas reserves continue to increase as more exploration is initiated.

Extraction of Arctic oil and gas, in improving, though still hostile, environmental conditions, will only be maximised if wide-ranging cooperation takes place between Russia and Canada in assuring the navigation, communication and safety of the Arctic transportation system.  This includes both maritime and aeronautic collaboration.  Some initial steps taken in this area are the Churchill-Murmansk Northern Sea bridge and discussions between Winnipeg and Krasnoyarsk on the Northern Air-bridge.  One can envisage the Arctic as being a forum for international cooperation rather than conflict.

Against this background, tractable, deferential yet stoic Canada will have the opportunity not only to substantially enrich her economy, but also her destiny as an Arctic power, using her non-belligerent equable nature to placate her Arctic neighbours.  If hurdles that might impede Canadian-Russian rapprochement can be removed in the near future, there is a good chance that the joint Russo-Canadian collaboration in the Arctic Ocean might usher in an era of sensible amity and concurrence that other oceans and other powers have failed to achieve.

[Statistics from Economist Pocket World 2014]

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