Tension in the high Arctic by Cleo Paskal

Written by  //  August 16, 2007  //  Arctic and Antarctic, Climate Change, Geopolitics, Security  //  1 Comment

15 August 2007

Canada’s Northwest Passage: Tension in the high Arctic

A classic example of the “if it’s not exclusively mine, it should at least be open to everyone” approach to the seas can be found in the Arctic.

Planetary warming will not be uniform over the entire globe. Broadly speaking, the changes in temperature will be relatively small over the oceans, as the oceans themselves can absorb a lot of heat.

In the Arctic, however, the changes will be much larger.

One reason for this is that ice, being light-coloured, reflects sunlight. As the ice starts to melt, less of this ultraviolet light will be reflected back into space and more solar radiation will remain at the surface. The result is a positive feedback mechanism that accelerates the warming of the area.

The Arctic melt is already being observed. Sea ice is melting earlier in the spring and freezing later in the autumn, and its thickness is decreasing.

The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research predicts that by 2080, and possibly much sooner, the entire Arctic may be ice-free in the summer.

One of the many geopolitical results of this melting ice is that shipping routes through the Arctic will become more viable. Russia is already making increasing use of its territorial Northeast Passage. Travelling between Asia and Europe through the Northwest Passage, which is mostly in Canada but might also include the waters of the United States, Denmark and other nations, is days faster, and would be much cheaper, than the current route through the Panama Canal. For example, the distance from London to Tokyo via Panama is approximately 23,000 kilometres. Through the Suez Canal it is approximately 21,000 km. Through northern Canada, it is approximately 16,000 km.

However, it is already evident that the opportunities this new route opens up will increase tension between states. While Canada claims that much of the Northwest Passage is part of its internal waters (a claim with a sound legal basis according to UNCLOS), the United States claims that the route is actually an international strait, open to free passage for all (the U.S. is rather generous in its declarations of international straits, including in its list, for example, a tiny strip of water in the Falklands that is only occasionally used for local supply boats).

During the most recent Canadian general election campaign, Stephen Harper, who subsequently became prime minister in February 2007, set out his $5.3 billion plan for defending Arctic sovereignty in an era of climate change that he has just this past week re-affirmed. It includes stationing armed ice-breakers, building a military/civilian deep-water docking facility and establishing underwater listening posts to monitor northern waters for foreign submarines and ships. The Canadian military even (not so subtly) renamed the passage Canadian Internal Waters. The main target of all that activity seems to be the United States. While the route remained non-navigable (or at least unprofitable), this was largely a technical debate.

Now, according to the report by the U.S. admirals and generals, “a warming Arctic holds great implications for military operations” — though, tellingly, in the report’s entire section on the Arctic they do not once mention Canada.

In 1988 the United States and Canada signed the Arctic Cooperation Agreement, which stated that the U.S. would ask permission before sending icebreakers through the passage but that, when so asked, Canada would give permission.

The agreement did not last. Over the summer of 2005, it was reported that a U.S. military submarine passed through the region on its way to a photo opportunity at the North Pole, where crew members played a quick game of American football for the cameras.

Legally, Canada’s claim is strong. But the changing conditions caused by climate change create a legal uncertainty and give an opening in which international politics can outflank international law.

Declaring the soon-to-be navigable waters an international strait is in the interest of every nation except Canada, and international political support for the Canadian position has been marked by its absence.

The United States cannot help but be pleased that several of Canada’s neighbours, for example Danish Greenland, are directly challenging some of Canada’s other territorial claims. Within Canada there is a lot of support for the government’s stand on Canadian sovereignty in the north. But the fact remains that while Canada can lodge as many complaints as it likes with ITLOS or through the media, it is probable that the United States (and possibly other states as well) will become increasingly bold in their transits through the region as they test Canadian resolve.

Cleo Paskal is a Montreal writer and fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. She is the author of a recent Chatham House study entitled Climate Change and Border Security.

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