TORONTO – Canada announced plans Monday to increase its Arctic military presence in an effort to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage – a potentially oil-rich region the United States claims is international territory.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said six to eight patrol ships will guard what he says are Canadian waters. A deep water port will also be built in a region the U.S. Geological Survey estimates has as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.
“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it,” Harper said. “It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the North on our terms have never been more urgent.”
U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins has criticized Harper’s promise to defend the Arctic, claiming the Northwest Passage as “neutral waters.” But Wilkins declined to comment on Monday, said U.S. Embassy spokesman James Foster.
As global warming melts the passage – which now is only navigable during a slim window in the summer – the waters are exposing unexplored resources such as oil, fishing stocks and minerals, and becoming an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off some 2,480 miles from Europe to Asia compared with current routes through the Panama Canal.
The disputed route runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. It gained historical fame among European explorers who longed to find the shorter route to Asia but found it rendered inhospitable by ice and weather.
Canadians have long claimed the waters. But their government has generally turned a blind eye to the United States, which has sent naval vessels and submarines through what it considers an international strait.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the ice cap is warming faster than the rest of the planet and ice is receding partly due to greenhouse gases.
“The ongoing discovery of the north’s resource riches coupled with the potential impact of climate change has made the region a growing area of interest and concern,” Harper said.
Professor Anthony D’Amato, who teaches international law at Northwestern University, said Canada’s attempt to secure future economic gains as the area thaws and becomes more navigable was unlikely to change the international community’s view of sovereignty in the area.
“For Canada to now come in and take advantage of the ice break-up is just unacceptable,” said D’Amato. “Just because there’s a change in the weather doesn’t mean there’s a change in the law.”