Canadian authorities are disputing reports in Chinese media that a sailor from that country attempting to tour the Arctic has been turned back from the Northwest Passage.
On Monday, the state-owned China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported that Zhai Mo and his two-man crew traveling aboard a 25-meter solar-powered yacht entered the Northwest Passage and were crossing the Bay of Baffin.
CGTN reported Thursday that Zhai had been “illegally arrested” in Lancaster Sound, an area not far from Greenland’s sea border with Canada. The report said he would return to China via the Panama Canal.
Transport Canada told CBC News in an email on Friday that it was aware of Zhai’s vessel, but that “at this point it has not entered Canadian Arctic waters.” The statement said Transport Canada could not currently confirm “the condition of the vessel”.
Zhai’s planned trip through the Northwest Passage would violate a ban on “adventure-seeking pleasure craft” in the waterway, which Canada implemented in March 2020 to limit the risk of introduction of COVID-19 in remote Arctic communities.
Canada considers the Northwest Passage – a route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that winds between the islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago – to be part of its internal waters and subject to its laws, but the United States and some European countries dispute this assertion.
China has not clearly articulated its position on Canada’s control over the Northwest Passage. But an article published Thursday on Zhai’s blog on Chinese social media site Wiebo said that “the international community generally thinks that the Northwest Passage is a sea route used for international shipping,” meaning that a right of free passage would apply under international conventions.
Zhai’s trip to the region was to take less than a week. But some experts say it has nonetheless posed a challenge to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.
“[If] anyâ¦ sailor wishing to cross the Canadian Arctic can simply do so without asking permissionâ¦ that in itself is a challenge to Canadian sovereignty, âsaid Andreas Ãsthagen, an Arctic expert at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, a research foundation in Norway.
âIt is a challenge for Canada’s ability to be present in its own Arctic territories.
New Zealander tried to cross the Northwest Passage in 2020
Zhai would be the second sailor to attempt to circumvent the ban. In the summer of 2020, a New Zealand sailor by the name of Peter Smith attempted to cross the Northwest Passage while traveling solo in a custom yacht, but was spotted by Nunavut land keepers and reported to Canadian authorities.
Transport Canada told CBC News it fined Smith for violating the ban, but did not specify the amount.
Transport Canada stated that it had been in contact with Zhai “mainly to inform him of the [ban]. Neither Transport Canada nor the CGTN said whether Coast Guard vessels intercepted Zhai on his trip.
Experts like University of Calgary political scientist Rob Huebert say controlling traffic in the Northwest Passage is key to Canada’s claim that it is inland waters – a claim contested by the United States and other maritime powers who want commercial ships to have free passage on the route.
âCanada claims the Northwest Passage is internal waters, and we are doing that so that we can exercise control over ships that are not in our best interests,â Huebert said.
In the case of vessels violating the ban, he says, there are “obvious safety concerns, and we must do everything in our power to stop [them]. “
Who is Zhai Mo?
Zhai is a professional painter, known in China for his Impressionist art. Inspired by Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women, he set sail for the tropical island of the South Pacific.
In 2009, he became the first Chinese to sail around the world solo. Zhai said his nonstop sailing tour of the Arctic would also be a first.
In interviews, Zhai has often presented his long journeys as an almost spiritual quest for artistic inspiration. He told the United Nations his trip to the arctic aimed to “raise awareness of the links between climate change and land degradation”.
But Zhai has also occasionally used his travels to further China’s global ambitions.
In 2013, escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard, he sailed to the disputed waters of the East China Sea and planted 100 Chinese flags off the disputed Senkaku / Daiyou Islands.
âEven though we were only a few people on a sailboat, we expressed our views to the people of Japan and other countries,â China’s Global Times said. quoted Zhai as saying. âWe got there and we claimed our sovereignty.
In 2015, he took a trip along the so-called Maritime Silk Road to advertise Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, a policy designed to expand the country’s international influence through billions of dollars in global infrastructure investments.
Zhai’s journey through the Arctic, which began in Shanghai on June 30, also received wide coverage in Chinese public media, and in particular on CGTN, which took cameras aboard the ship. his ship and calls Zhai “our sailor”.
Zhai’s trip comes as China steps up efforts to project greater influence over the melting Arctic.
In 2018, with the publication of its Arctic Strategy, China declared itself a “near arctic” state. Internally, he describes the Arctic as a region “ripe for rivalry and extraction,” according to an analysis by Brooking Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
His Proposed Polar Silk Road is to encourage more commercial voyages to the Arctic, and the China Ocean Shipping Company, which sponsors Zhai’s voyage, has already undertaken numerous test voyages on Russia’s Northern Sea Route, a passage that runs along the northern coast of Eurasia.
Polar experts like Ãsthagen doubt that Zhai’s trip was a deliberate attempt to test Canadian claims to Arctic sovereignty. But it may serve other purposes for China’s Arctic ambitions.
“This is a national attempt by China to make a mark in Arctic history,” wrote Elizabeth Buchanan, a polar geopolitics expert at Deakin University of Australia.
A famous Chinese icon circling the Arctic would be a powerful symbol, Buchanan says, which could boost support for other actions in the region.