Canadian military says it has tracked, stopped China surveillance in Arctic waters

The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces say they're aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and waters.

U.S. shot down suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew through Canadian airspace earlier this month

A man rides a snowmobile over icy terrain.
A Canadian military volunteer takes part in a patrol off Cornwallis Island, Nunavut on April 9, 2006. (David Ljunggren/Reuters)

The Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces say they're aware of recent efforts by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and waters.

Spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said in a statement that the armed forces have tracked and stopped attempts to surveil Canadian territory since 2022 under Operation LIMPID.

"To ensure the integrity of operations, we are unable to provide further information at this time," he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in an interview on CNN Wednesday morning that China is an increasingly disruptive power.

She said Canada will work with NORAD to protect North American airspace and take a strong stance on Canada's Arctic sovereignty as more reports of foreign interference emerge.

"When it comes to China, we will challenge China when we ought to, and we will co-operate with China when we need to," she said.

"When it comes to issues over the Arctic within our maritime borders, or any form of foreign interference, we will be clear, and that's how we will address this issue."

Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly spoke Mar. 16, 2023 with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen by phone, noting that Ottawa is keeping a close eye on Israel's judicial reform.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Her comments come after the Globe and Mail newspaper reported that the Canadian military had detected Chinese monitoring buoys in the Arctic.

That revelation follows the U.S. decision to shoot down what was confirmed to be a Chinese high-altitude balloon early this month. China's government denied it was a spy device.

Three other high-altitude objects were shot down over North America in the days that followed. U.S. President Joe Biden has said that there is nothing to suggest these additional objects were related to what he described as "China's spy balloon program."

Adam Lajeunesse, an assistant professor at St. Francis Xavier University who specializes in Canadian Arctic marine security, said it isn't clear right now what kind of instrumentation the Chinese buoys were carrying.

"It's some kind of scientific device with potential dual-use capability that was almost certainly dropped off by one of the two Chinese icebreakers," he said, referring to vessels China country has used to circumnavigate the Arctic.

Close up shot of a small boat with about 8 people on board, pulling a large white item out of the water.
Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon that was downed by the United States over the weekend over U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, U.S., February 5, 2023. (U.S. Fleet Forces/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

Unanswered questions remain about whether the buoys drifted into Canadian waters after being deployed in the Arctic Ocean or were deliberately anchored to the sea floor in Canadian territory.

Lajeunesse said that a buoy could be used to chart the sea floor and monitor salinity levels and ice thickness ahead of other deployments.

"This is the necessary scientific work that has to be done before you deploy nuclear submarines into the Arctic," he said, noting that another fear is that the buoy could be tracking American submarines.

He said it is "virtually impossible" to disentangle scientific and academic work in China from the country's military and government, and Canada must decide whether it will still allow Chinese icebreakers through the Northwest Passage.

"The most significant result of this is going to be a Canadian reconsideration of scientific co-operation with the Chinese," said Lajeunesse.

"Canada is going to have to do a big review of not only its co-operation with the scientific community within China, but also how it responds to ostensibly civilian work and scientific work within its areas of jurisdiction."

He said the Chinese have for many years tested unmanned drones, underwater drones known as "wave gliders" and Arctic-specific geo-spatial technology in the region.

"None of this is new. I think we are just starting to notice it and put it within the context of a more confrontational relationship with China," he said.

The United States changed its laws on marine scientific research in 2020 to require additional authorizations before allowing foreign research activity.


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