George W. Bush is sabre-rattling again. This time, just days before he gives up the presidency, he signed a new U.S. Arctic policy. Asserting that the Northwest Passage is an international strait, the U.S. has delivered a blatant rejection of Canada’s claims to sovereignty in the region.
The American policy places freedom of the seas at the top of the list of American priorities. “The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation, and the Northern sea route includes straits used for international navigation. Preserving the rights and duties relating to navigation and overflight in the Arctic region supports our ability to exercise these rights throughout the world, including through strategic straits,” it says.
The new policy also instructs that the United States aggressively resolve border disputes, particularly those on the Arctic seabed where oil, natural gas and mineral resources may prove an economic boon.
The U.S. announcement is in direct opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policy to increase our country’s presence in the Far North. He has proposed strengthening Canada’s military presence and fostering economic and social development.
The designation is of primary importance. Once a waterway is declared an “international” no one country can restrict passage through it. The definition is set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that came into force in November 1994. Canada has ratified the treaty, but the United States has not. Opponents have argued that ratification will diminish U.S. self-government and the capacity for self-defence.
The debate over the status of the Northwest Passage is literally heating up now as global warming may soon render it ice-free most of the year. With a shorter route from Europe to Asia, the movement of commercial and military ships will be faster and cheaper than using the Panama Canal, for example.
A quick look at a map shows that the debate should be a no-brainer. The Northwest Passage looks to be firmly within Canada. The Americans might anchor their hopes on Alaska at the western entrance, but there is no U.S. territory on the eastern end of the route.
Let us hope the Canadian government can make a case for keeping the Northwest Passage in Canadian hands whether or not it is navigable.