David Jones: Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage

Written by  //  August 15, 2008  //  Arctic and Antarctic, Canada, David/Terry Jones  //  1 Comment

August 15, 2008
David Jones . Don’t kid yourselves, Canada
Citizen Special
Sometimes one wonders why a politician marches into a swamp clearly marked, “Here lie alligators.” Is it hubris — the conviction that water walking is not confined to Biblical characters? Is it an effort to float a lead balloon by someone confused as to whether lead floats or declines that option? Is it an effort to see whether kicking the immobile canine will prove that the dog is actually dead (while assuming that if sleeping it will only snarl at you, but not tear off a foot)?
It is with such thoughts in mind that one can examine the blithe observations by Senator William Rompkey in his mid-July excursion into comment and opinion regarding the Arctic and the Northwest Passage (“Russian flags aren’t the real threat to Arctic sovereignty” July 17).
Senator Rompkey made one accurate point. Energy exploration and control over areas in the Arctic beyond the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone are thoroughly scripted; they will be handled by duelling mapping agencies, seismic studies, and probably, ultimately by jurisprudence, but not by duelling gun boats. A number of states are engaged in preparing such claims (and oddly Senator Rompkey noted Denmark but fails to list the United States). But be that as it may.
From that point Senator Rompkey immediately goes astray with his affirmation that the Northwest Passage is Canadian internal waters. He offers the opinion of a Canadian law professor that “Canada at present had a good claim to the Northwest Passage as internal waters.”
However, that claim, as Senator Rompkey admits, is hardly universally accepted. In fact, it is not accepted at all. No seafaring nation accepts such a Canadian claim. Certainly not any EU state, Russia — or the United States.
And here Senator Rompkey waxes disingenuous. He approvingly cites another expert in the field to the effect that the United States would not contest Canada setting up rules and regulations regarding control of the Northwest Passage. The expert hypothesizes that the U.S. would not publicly agree with Canadian action but would allow such measures as mandatory notification for all vessels entering the Northwest Passage — as a device for building the case for Canadian sovereignty over the strait.
Senator Rompkey and Canadians pursuing this logic are, to put it politely, kidding themselves.
They may have forgotten a revealing element of U.S. bureaucratic history. That is, for most of the life of the American republic, there were two separate, independent military-related institutions: a War Department and a Navy Department. And anyone who assumes that the Navy was the subordinate department would be mistaken. While all U.S. military services are now incorporated into the Defense Department, as long as there is a United States Navy, U.S. government policy will insist on maintaining international waterways as international.
This position is not bloody-minded U.S. arrogance. It is simply the pragmatic approach of a major naval power defending its international interests. It is not that Washington doesn’t love and trust Ottawa’s benign willingness to permit U.S. naval vessels innocent transit of the Northwest Passage (we don’t, but that is another story). It is that the collegial nature of Canadian sovereignty would not necessarily be matched by other states when addressing waterways they would like to control — read Iran concerning the Straits of Hormuz or Indonesia, regarding the Malacca Straits.
Immediately following the 2006 election and prior to becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper emphasized Canada’s claim to the Arctic. Subsequently, the Canada First defense strategy has been sold at least partly as necessary for defence of Arctic sovereignty. Subsequent to Mr. Harper’s statement, the State Department’s press spokesman was prodded on the status of the Northwest Passage and the need for the U.S. to request permission to transit the strait. The response was direct and definitive, “We believe it is an international strait. It’s a longstanding policy of the United States.”
Currently, there is a workable regime in operation in the Arctic. The hypotheses regarding continued melting ice in the region remain hypotheses. They do not require dramatic action in the near term; indeed, they may never require such action, and it is borrowing trouble to press for such.
And there it stands; Washington is not looking for trouble. We are willing to agree on disagreement. But if Canada continues pushing this hot button, it will prompt an unpleasant and unnecessary electric jolt.

One Comment on "David Jones: Canada's claim to the Northwest Passage"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson August 20, 2008 at 5:50 pm ·

    Another Wednesday Nighter offers these comments.
    The State Department legals say that NWP is an international strait of navigation within Canadian territorial waters. They will not recognize it as an inland waterway liike the St Lawrence river which is what Harper wants but he was never upfront with the Canadian public about this until it leaked out at the 2007 SPP meeting.
    Other US/Canadian contested areas are the Beaufort Sea (lots of oil and gas, probably also in the form of methyl hydrates up there then). Hans Island we know about with Denmark.
    Two things to note: Harper’s deepwater port of Nunasivik is not required as he has replaced his electoral promise of 3 ice breaking frigates with 6 Norwegian Arctic class patrol boats. So, why does he want to proceed with this deepwater port then? Shipping coal from Ellesmere Island to the oilsands? Generally be able to berth Panama-class freight in the future? Or is it part of his tough-talking nationalistic ‘for the benefit of all Canadians’ talk on Arctic sovereignty – “You either use it or lose it.”
    The other issue raised by your author is why the US is not making Arctic claims. Under the UN CLOS (Convention of the Law of the Sea), countries have 10 years to submit their claims of what they feel is their territory, hence the Russians planted flags last summer under the North Pole last year indicating they feel the Lomonosov Ridge is part of their continental shelf.
    The UNCLOS will then review everyone’s claims and sort it accordingly.
    As yet, the US has not ratified the UNCLOS although it will happen soon, it’s in their interest to do so. They’ve not rushed as yet, partly because of Neo-Conservative distaste for overarching multi-lateral institutions like the UN, but also because they were happy enough to see what everyone else thinks and then try and make a better scientific claim for US interests.
    Is UNCLOS good enough to solve these issues? Iceland’s President told me he thought it was an excellent treaty. So too did Norway’s Foreign Minister. I didn’t discuss it with Norway’s PM, Jens Steltenberg.
    A little thought though, with all the minerals (e.g mining in Greenland), oil & gas in the Arctic (remember the recent USGS estimates last month?), should the Inuits of Nunavut, NWT and Greenland call for UDI of their peoples and control all these resources as one nation?
    That’s right Stephen, ‘You either use it or lose it’ and maybe that’ll pay you back for Kelowna!

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