Friday, January 27, 2006

Standoff Brewing Over Arctic

For once it's not about oil. Still, there is a stand-off brewing between the US, Russia, and Canada over use of the Arctic. At issue this time is the status of the Northwest Passage. For three decades, Canada has asserted that the waters surrounding their archipelago belong to Canada. For those same three decades, the US and Russia have recognized the Northwest Passage as international waters. (Washington Post: Harper Tells U.S. to Drop Arctic Claim).

After three decades of disagreement, the status of these waters is now becoming an issue. As the glaciers in the arctic continue to recede, the ice flows in the Northwest Passage grow thinner, making that waterway a viable navigation route for longer periods throughout the year. Melting ice has revealed major pockets of prime fishing grounds, and the passage alone shaves about 2800 miles off the one-way trip from Europe to Asia. Control of the passage is going to be politically and economically significant over the course of he next couple of decades.

Since the advent of the nuclear submarine, the US - and presumably Russia - has used the Northwest Passage when sailing under the north pole. Neither nation has ever asked permission to do so, emphasizing its status as international waters. Canada's new Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears ready to push that issue, however. Harper announced that he intends to expand Canada's military presence in the region, and will build and deploy three new armed ice breakers to patrol the passage.

The brewing standoff is reminiscent of Egypt's attempt to close the Suez Canal in the 1950's. As you may recall, the US response was to repeatedly sail a pair of destroyers up and down the canal daring Egypt to fire on them. Egypt didn't (which is fortunate since my father was on one of those destroyers several years before I was born.) It is likely that any attempt by Canada to enforce claims on the northwest passage will meet with a similar response.

This latest move by Harper comes at a time of growing discord between the US and our northern neighbor. Canada is not pleased with US plans to require passports to cross the border, nor is Canada supportive of our efforts in Iraq. Canadians have even taken their anti-American sentiment to the ice rink, on at least two recent occasions booing the American National Anthem at youth - yes, YOUTH - hockey games!

Canadians would do well to reconsider their growing anti-American attitudes. Both nations share the overwhelming benefits of free economic trade and the luxury of not having to defend a border that stretches the width of the continent. Does Canada truly want to jeopardize that? Both economically and militarily they cannot afford it. Most of the Canadian population borders the US, and many Canadians are dependent upon cross-border trade. Economically, Canada has far more to lose by increasing tensions than does the US.

Harper would do well to avoid forcing a confrontation with US subs bound for the arctic. That's not a standoff he can win, and it's not in his best interests to force it. It's not Canada's northern border that is at risk, it is their southern border. Neither the US nor Canada will benefit from a standoff over the Northwest Passage. Harper would be well advised to continue doing what Canada has done for the past three decades when US ships traveled through the Arctic. Look the other way. The alternative does not benefit anyone.


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