Competing northern passages

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Early next week two German-owned container ships will arrive in Rotterdam from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, having taken only one month to make the voyage. That’s much faster than usual — but then they didn’t take the usual route down through the South China Sea, past Singapore, round the bottom of India, through the Suez Canal (pay toll here), across the Mediterranean and up the west coast of Europe. They just went around the top of Russia.

It’s the first-ever commercial transit of the Northeast Passage by non-Russian ships, and it shortens the sea trip between East Asia and Europe by almost a third. It’s the melting of Arctic Ocean ice that has made it possible, although for the moment it’s only possible for a couple of months at the end of the summer melt season, when the Arctic ice cover has shrunk dramatically. But it is a sign of things to come.

The voyage is more evidence that climate change is well under way, and will strike the Arctic region hard. But it also shows that all the fuss about the Northwest Passage is irrelevant. It’s the Northwest Passage — another potential shortcut between Europe and East Asia, which goes through the Canadian Arctic archipelago — that has gotten the attention in the past few years.

Although ice-breakers have traversed it from time to time, no ordinary commercial ship has ever carried cargo through it. But when the Russians put on their little propaganda show at the North Pole two years ago, the Canadian government had kittens.

In 2007 Artur Chilingarov, a Russian scientist famous for his work in the polar regions and personal Arctic adviser to then-President Vladimir Putin, took a mini-sub to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the seabed. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately flew to Iqaluit in the high Arctic and responded with a rabble-rousing speech.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic,” he said. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake: This government intends to use it.” He then announced a program to build six to eight armed Arctic patrol vessels to assert Canadian control over the Northwest Passage, and a deep-water naval base on Baffin Island.

“I don’t know why the Canadians reacted as they did,” Chilingarov told me a few months later in Moscow, and on the face of it he had a case. After all, Russia has no claims over any land or water that might conceivably belong to Canada, and Canada makes no claim on the North Pole. But Chilingarov actually understood the game that Harper was playing quite well.

Canada’s dispute over sovereignty in the Northwest Passage is actually with the United States, not with Russia. The Russians have absolutely no interest in the Northwest Passage, since they have their own rival, the Northeast Passage. But the United States used to believe that the Northwest Passage could be very useful if it were ice-free, so Washington has long maintained that it is an international water way that Canada has no right to control.

Canada disputes that position, pointing out that all six potential routes for a commercially viable Northwest Passage wind are between islands that are close together and indisputably Canadian. But Ottawa has never asserted military control over the Northwest Passage until now, because to do so would risk an awkward confrontation with the U.S. However, if you can pretend that you are building those warships and that naval base to hold the wicked Russians at bay, not to defy the Americans . . .

That is Harper’s game, and he now visits the high north every summer to re-assert Canada’s sovereignty claims. But in the end it will make no difference, because the Northwest Passage will never become a major shipping route. The Northeast Passage is just too much easier.

The problem for Canada is that all the routes for a Northwest Passage involve shallow and/or narrow straits between various islands in the country’s Arctic archipelago, and the prevailing winds and currents in the Arctic Ocean tend to push whatever loose sea ice there is into those straits. It is unlikely that cargo ships that are not double-hulled and strengthened against ice will ever get insurance for the passage at an affordable price.

Whereas the Northeast Passage is mostly open water (once the ice retreats from the Russian coast), and there is already a major infrastructure of ports and nuclear-powered ice-breakers in the region. Since the distances are roughly comparable, shippers will prefer the Northeast Passage every time.

Just look at the Arctic Ocean on a globe, rather than on the familiar flat-earth Mercator projection. It is instantly obvious that the distance is the same whether shipping between Europe and East Asia crosses the Arctic Ocean by running along Russia’s Arctic coast (the Northeast Passage) or weaving between Canada’s Arctic islands (the Northwest Passage).

The same is true for cargo traveling between Europe and the west coast of North America. The Northwest Passage will never be commercially viable.

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