Scrambling among the Arctic players

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Among the headlines I never expected to see, the top three were “Pope marries,” “President Bush admits error” and “Canada uses military might,” but there it was, staring up at me from a British newspaper: “Canada uses military might in Arctic scramble.”

Read a little further into the story and the “military might” turns out to be some armed icebreakers and two small military bases in the high Arctic, neither of which will be operational for some time to come, but all the same. . . .

At the beginning of August, mini-submarines planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed at the North Pole, symbolically claiming the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range, as part of the country’s continental shelf.

If the claim were accepted, it would expand the Exclusive Economic Zone in which only Russians can exploit minerals and other seabed resources all the way to the North Pole, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how planting a titanium-encased Russian flag on the sea floor advanced Russia’s case.

Days later, Danish scientists headed for the Arctic to gather evidence for their claim that the Lomonosov ridge is actually an extension of Greenland’s continental shelf, and therefore belongs to Denmark. “We will be collecting data for a possible demand,” explained Christian Marcussen of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. And then last Friday Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, flew to Resolute Bay in the territory of Nunavut for the photo-op of a lifetime.

“Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: use it or lose it,” said Harper, for the second time in a week trotting out a phrase that was originally coined to describe one of the uglier realities of nuclear strategy. Nunavut is one of the coldest human settlements on Earth, but Harper was having the time of his life. For once there was some sort of threat to Canada’s sovereignty, or at least it could be made to look as if there were, and he was the staunch patriot standing up for Canada’s rights. What politician could ask for more?

It’s actually the Canadian government that has led this round of Arctic posturing, beginning with its declaration in April that the Northwest Passage, a series of channels between Canadian-owned Arctic Islands that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans if they weren’t choked with ice most of the year, would no longer be classified as “territorial waters” (through which foreign ships enjoy the right of innocent passage, although foreign warships are expected to seek permission).

In the future, they will be “Canadian internal waters,” over which Canada exercises complete control.

It was a crowd-pleasing gesture in Canada, especially since the United States has long denied that the Northwest Passage is even Canadian territorial waters, insisting instead that it is “international waters” over which Canada has no control. Washington has even sent warships through from time to time, deliberately not asking permission, which greatly annoyed Canadian nationalists. And global warming means that by 2015 or 2020 the Northwest Passage might even be open to commercial shipping for five or six months a year, so Harper had a plausible pretext for getting excited.

But it was a pretext, not a reason, since there is actually no danger that the U.S. is going to steal the Northwest Passage from Canada, or blockade it, or even attack Canadian ships. Yet Harper has announced that Canada will spend $7 billion on six new armed ice-breakers to assert its sovereignty in Arctic waters, build a new deep-water port at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island for both military and civilian use, and even open a new army training center for cold-weather warfare at Resolute Bay.

This all makes great copy, but just whom are these soldiers supposed to fight? Russians infiltrating the Canadian Arctic on foot? And what are the guns on the new Canadian ice-breakers for? Fighting the U.S. Navy the next time it sends a ship through the Northwest Passage without permission? There is a scramble for the Arctic, but it is not military. It’s about laying claim to potentially valuable resources on the basis of geographical and geological data, within the framework laid down by the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.

The 1982 treaty, which now has 155 member-states, sets out the rules for claiming seabed rights, which is the only issue of real economic importance to the various Arctic players. It’s all about mapping the seabed, doing the seismic work, and registering your claims within 10 years of ratifying the UNCLOS treaty.

In Canada’s case, that means by 2013, and it would do better to concentrate on that task, like the Russians and the Danes, rather than make meaningless military gestures.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.