Maybe we don’t own, or control, the Arctic waters after all
LUIZA CH. SAVAGEFebruary272006
THE NORTHWEST BLOCKAGE
Maybe we don’t own, or control, the Arctic waters after all
BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE • The United States has long pressed Canada to beef up its military—but this is not quite what it had in mind. Spending more to protect the continent from terrorists and to participate in NATO missions is one thing. A show of force on a northern icescape is another—especially when it appears to be aimed largely at, well, them.
Officials in Washington say they are still “puzzled” by Stephen Harper’s election promise to spend billions on a military presence in the Arctic. They needn’t be. Posturing over Arctic sovereignty is something of a political ritual. Brian Mulroney made similar promises— and shelved them when he saw the price tag. Driving it is a concern for the future of the Northwest Passage, the fabled maritime route through Canada’s Arctic islands that connects the Pacific and Adantic oceans, at least when it’s not frozen over, which it is almost all the time. One day—a day that may be 10,20 or even 50 years away—climate change may melt the ice and allow passage of commercial vessels, shortening the route from Europe to the Far East by thousands of kilometres. The question will then become, who controls the passage?
The general rule in international law is that there is a right of transit from one part of the high seas to another. But Canada claims the Northwest Passage as internal waters—and asserts the power to control who comes and goes. It’s an issue over which the Canadians and the Americans, backed by Europe and other countries, have long agreed to disagree.
American Ambassador David Wilkins touched a nerve last month by referring to the passage as “neutral waters.” It was a sloppy choice of words in a highly legalistic dispute. The official U.S. position (supported by Britain and others) maintains that the waters are a “strait for international navigation.” That’s quite different from “neutral” or international waters, which would imply open access to resources, such as oil or fish. “Wilkins’ comments, quite frankly, were much more provocative than anything we’d seen with previous
ambassadors. Was he put up to that?” asks Rob Huebert, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. The State Department says no. “He used the word neutral which is not the correct term,” says a senior official. Everyone agrees that Canada owns the resources; the only issue is freedom of movement through the strait itself.
Despite Wilkins’ insistence that he was articulating long-held policy, Harper pounced, rebuking him in his first post-election news conference. “This is one of those issues where political sensitivities go beyond the merit of what the dispute is about,” observes Huebert. Canada wants to control the passage largely for reasons of national pride, identity and sovereignty. On a more practical level, Canada is also concerned about its ability to enforce strict environmental standards if and when oil tankers start moving through the waters, and to generally police its backyard.
That disagreement is likely to continue, though the bigger concern for the U.S. is not the passage itself, but the general principle of freedom of navigation through straits around the world. Although American submarines are reported to occasionally pass under the ice, the passage’s military importance has waned with the end of the Cold War. “Almost all of it has to do with the fact that the U.S. is a naval power that is concerned with the passage of its naval vessels around the world. There are plenty of countries around the world with waterways that they claim should be exempt from international transit,” says Joseph Jockel, professor of Canadian studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. The worry is “creeping exceptionalism” or “creeping uniqueness”— the notion that accepting Ottawa’s position could send the wrong message to countries whose waters surround the world’s most strategic straits. Specialists frequently mention the Strait of Malacca, which links the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea and runs between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The fear is that “like-minded nations would want to claim [channels] as territorial waters-not only regulating but effectively blocking American ships, including American naval vessels and petroleum tankers,” says Christopher Kirkey, the director of the Center for the Study of Canada at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
The United States takes a “more global view” of the issue, agrees Elizabeth ElliotMeisel, chair of the history department at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. But “whether or not that is our best interest because Canada is one of our closest allies is up for debate,” she adds.
The State Department says it is not looking for a fight. “It’s a natural route of navigation, that’s all,” says an official. “I don’t view this as a major issue for us—we’re not constantly trying to transit it. But when asked if we view it as a strait used for international navigation, we say yes. We prefer not to make a big deal of it, and we don’t.”
Who has the stronger case? It’s unclear. The U.S. argues the passage has historically been used for international transit—albeit by ships with reinforced hulls, and, often, ice-
breaker escorts—while Canada asserts a historical claim to the land. Canadian archives contain “mixed messages” on that question, says Elliot-Meisel, the author of a book on the history of the dispute. Canada can also argue that the Northwest Passage is unlike other commercially used straits because it is choked with ice—but that argument could melt away.
Some Canadian commentators have suggested taking the issue to the International Court ofjustice, but the government is betting that the best way to bolster Canada’s sovereignty is to exercise it—by imposing a military presence, including two high-Arctic emergency base camps and the purchase of icebreakers so that Canada can traverse the passage yearround, a capability it currently lacks. The Canadian military is planning an exercise this spring that will see up to 52 troops, in five snowmobile patrols, cover some 4,500 km to help affirm sovereignty in the area.
There is no guarantee it will work. If Canada does build up its military presence, “Canadians may feel better,” predicts Jockel. “But the U.S. will still insist it has a right of transit passage when pressed to do so.” Nothing would please American officials more than to see the furor die down to a quiet disagreement.
The Mulroney government and the Reagan administration worked out an arrangement under which U.S. icebreakers alert Canada when they plan to traverse the passage and Canada agrees to give its permission—with each side agreeing that the legal status of the strait remains unaffected. There is hope stateside that the newly appointed Canadian ambassador to Washington, Michael Wilson, will find a way to finesse the issue. “It’s a very positive sign. It’s good to have someone who knows the file well,” says Kirkey.
Meanwhile, despite the renewed attention on the Canadian North, more pressing con-
Strategic passages in other parts of the world are of more concern to the U.S.
cerns may lie elsewhere. There is already a Wild West rush to develop oil on the continental shelf north of Russia. Drilling and shipping will occur there first, and the regulatory and environmental regime that emerges there—or the lack of it—could affect the entire Arctic region. “Far more important is what will happen on the northern passage over Russia and Scandinavia,” says David Caron, an international water law specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.
“All this argues for focusing more broadly on the Arctic,” he says. “And not the more traditional question of Canada-U.S. relations.”
But for a Prime Minister who appears torn between improving relations with Americans and arming the country against them, that might be asking too much. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.