With the authority that comes with 13,000 tons of ship and engines that can generate 60,000 horsepower, the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Sea headed into the Northwest Passage last week on its way through Canada’s Arctic islands to Alaska. The initial stages of its scheduled two-week voyage passed smoothly, but it led to a reaffirmation of Ottawa’s claims to sovereignty over the passage and reinforced what promised to be a long-running diplomatic dispute between Canada and the United States. Canada succeeded in putting three representatives aboard the ship, but Washington’s attitude toward the voyage clearly angered many federal officials in Ottawa.
The controversy over the Polar Sea’s voyage began slowly this summer amid early reports of the venture. By last week Barry McWhinney, the director general of the external affairs department’s legal bureau in Ottawa, said that “an intensive review” of Canada’s claimed Arctic sovereignty would be launched, and that the dispute with the United States could wind up before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. For its part, Washington maintained that the route of the Polar Sea, through Lancaster and Viscount Melville sounds, is an international waterway and beyond Canada’s jurisdiction.
Acting on that basis, the state department informed Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government in May that the Polar Sea would use the passage for a two-week voyage from Thule, Green-
land, west to Point Barrow, Alaska. American officials explained that the voyage through the Northwest Passage was necessary because of the Polar Sea’s tight operating schedule. They said that the voyage was not intended as a challenge to Canada’s claim of sovereignty over the waterway, but only as a faster and cheaper alternative to the more circuitous voyage through the Panama Canal to the Pacific.
Angered by Washington’s refusal to ask permission for the journey, Ottawa waited until the eve of the voyage last week to issue a statement on the dispute.
In what appeared to be a face-saving gesture, the Canadian statement “authorized” the voyage—even though the Americans had not requested permission—but it expressed “deep regret”
that Washington has _
consistently refused to Robinson: free accept Canadian sovereignty over the passage.
As the Polar Sea embarked on its voyàge, the controversy took on another dimension with a report on CBC Radio suggesting that the U.S. ship might be planning to carry out experiments connected with anti -submarine warfare. But Lt. Max Allen of the U.S.
Navy insisted that remarks he made about separate experiments conducted in the past by American submarines
had been misleadingly quoted out of context in what he called “shabby journalism.” For his part, U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. John Bannon declared that there was “absolutely no truth to the reports.”
At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledged that the Polar Sea’s mission was partly scientific. In Washington, Nicholas Sandifer, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman, said that detailed ice and weather data collected by the Polar Sea during its voyage would be shared with “all mariners.” He added that when the Polar Sea reached Alaska, it would engage in “some scientific activities” organized by the U.S. maritime administration and involving the U.S. Navy and Canada’s department of transport. But in Ottawa, Canadian Coast Guard officials said that tentative plans call for participation in ice measurements and hull stress tests off Alaska in October when the Polar Sea is due to return to Alaska waters.
The presence on board the Polar Sea of the three Canadians was arranged in bilateral discussions before the voyage. Still, their participation, along with planned overflights by Canadian Forces’ Aurora and Tracker patrol planes during the Polar Sea’s voyage, appeared to be largely symbolic. A U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said that the Canadians on board have no authority to offer guidance or instructions during the journey, although the Canadian statement described the three men as “observers and advisers.”
Both Washington and Ottawa agreed that the voyage will not be used to weaken any future legal action that Canada takes to enforce its sovereignty over the passage. Indeed, Canada obtained that assurance in writing during the weeks of diplomatic exchanges leading up to the voyage.
In Ottawa Paul Robinson, the outspoken U.S. ambassador who will complete his tour of duty in Ottawa early this fall, said the dispute was nothing more
_ than a creation of the
news media. “It doesn’t prejudice either country’s stand on the sovereignty of those waters. We’re saying it’s international waters,” he said. But he conceded that his government would feel differently if Soviet ships were to follow the lead of the Polar Sea. Said Robinson: “We have other security concerns that would naturally involve the Soviet Union.”
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