The recent public disagreement over the Northwest Passage between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Harper of Canada at the summit meeting of North American leaders in Montebello, Quebec, capped a frenetic summer in Arctic affairs. As the two leaders addressed the issue of who has the right to do what in the Arctic waters of North America, the polar ice cap was dwindling to its lowest observed extent, opening the way for Arctic countries to move about more freely and to stake deep seabed claims in the world’s smallest ocean. Principally because of climate change, we are now witnessing the birth of a new international region. Canada and the United States had better join in making the most of it.
Current and foreseeable energy prices make the estimated 25 percent of the world’s unproven oil and gas reserves there especially attractive, though getting at them remains technologically challenging. Miners, shipping companies and fishing fleets are also taking notice of easier access to valuable resources. Seeing the potential for great wealth on their northernmost frontiers, the countries bordering on the Arctic Ocean are hastening to establish legal claims to the region’s bounty, claims which will eventually have to be negotiated by all concerned. Also at stake is control over increasingly navigable Arctic sea routes, shipping shortcuts that could potentially shave thousands of miles off of traditional voyages through the two canals or around the two capes.
Russia sounded the starting gun in 2001, with a claim to large parts of the Arctic seafloor. Rejected by the international commission with jurisdiction in such matters, Russia returned to the headlines this summer with a flag planting on the seabed at the North Pole. Provocatively, Moscow has also resumed polar strategic bomber exercises.
Due to the respective geographies of Greenland and the Svalbard Islands, Denmark and Norway are equally anxious to build their cases for ownership in the outer continental shelf. Even the United States dispatched a Coast Guard icebreaker with 20 scientists aboard on an early September research expedition to amass scientific evidence for the Alaskan inheritance beyond the allotted 200 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone.
In an era that demands something new from the United States and Canada at the top of the world, the tiresome dispute over the Northwest Passage is old business that holds us back.
At issue is whether, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the United States helped write but hasn’t signed, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago should be regarded as Canadian internal waters subject to Canadian law, or as an international strait open to navigation by all, specifically by the U.S. Navy.
Chest-thumping on the Canadian side has gone so far as to see the prime minister recently announce financing for new Arctic naval patrol vessels, a new deepwater port for this fleet just off the Northwest Passage, and a cold-weather military training center right on the passage. All this on the heels of “Operation Nanook,” the largest yet of Canadian military exercises aimed at “asserting” Arctic sovereignty.
It is way past time for the two North American neighbors, who share the longest non-militarized border in the world and more than half a trillion dollars of annual trade, to cool the posturing and come to our senses on the need for close cooperation in an emergent Arctic.
This is especially true as the Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage over Russian Eurasia is opening first and by a wide margin. In such a context, differences of legal interpretation over the status of the Northwest Passage can only be regarded as highly theoretical.
Far more productive than sound bites on the topic of using or defending still ice-clogged North American waterways would be a joint effort to generate a long-range vision of how the Arctic region is to be managed in its entirety.
The Law of the Sea’s authors were not in a position to envision a melting, navigable Arctic. The time is ripe for the United States and Canada to fill a leadership void, first by crafting a new structure of cooperation for the Arctic waters of North America. Bilateral arrangements here should be designed to engage Russia and others in due course, possibly in a comprehensive regional treaty.
To start, we ought to build on the Canada-U.S. accord of 1988, which saw the two nations “agree to disagree” on the status of the Northwest Passage in international law, and to cooperate without prejudice to any legal determination that might one day be made. This accord has worked exceedingly well. As a no-cost gesture of good will to cool the dispute, the State Department, while not ceding the U.S. position in law, should reaffirm its 1992 statement that the United States considers its commercial vessels to be subject to Canada’s 1970 Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.
There are times when military force is rightly mustered to defend the national interest. For the United States and Canada in their Arctic dealings, now is totally not one of them. The two nations would be wise to forgo posturing and instead get on with the hard work and leadership that’s required of us both in the new Arctic.
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