Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Northwest Passage

The Danish National Space Centre confirmed that the Northwest Passage has now opened up and it is now possible to navigate from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the north coast of Canada. Given that the low point of sea ice in the Arctic typicaly occcurs in October, this means that we can look a month or more of navigability this year. If the arctic ice continues to melt at the pace that it has been over the last couple of years (far exceeding the predictions of the even the aggressive global warming models) this will likely mean that the Northwest Passage, after more than a half millenium of fantasy, will become a reality and we should expect to see regular shipping traffic in the near future.

When the Manhattan smashed its way through the Northwest Passage in the 1960's Canada defended its sovereignty in the Arctic by giving it unasked for 'permission' to carry on. Unless the government plans to create the Department of 'I Know You Did Not Ask, But Of Course You May,' we are now going to have to develop a serious position on how what position we are going to take on our sovereignty and, unless we concede the point, figure out how we are seriously going to defend (legally, militarily and practically) that position.

Our opponents in this regard will not be Afghan tribesmen using improvised explosive devices, they will the United States, the EU and the flag of convenience countries like Panama who will be dusting of their claims that the Northwest Passage is international waters open to free navigation by everyone. Moreover, what is at stake in these discussions is not peanuts. The ability to ship from Europe and the eastern seabord to Asia without passing through the increasingly limited Panama Canal is a huge financial prize. For larger vessels (such as supertankers) which would otherwise have to navigate around Cape Horn the stakes are even larger.

Now is the time to start this discussion in a serious way. Personally I believe there are good policy reasons (such as international security and environmental regulation) to assert and maintain the position that the Northwest Passage falls under Canada's sovereign jurisdiction as 'internal waters' however there are alternative positions and the legal nuances are mindnumbing (even for lawyers). Moreover, all of the legal argument in the world will not serve any purpose if Canada is not able to practically enforce its position. Enforcement of Canada's position does not just require military positioning -- no amount of military positioning will work if the United States and the major EU nations are not onside. Canada is going to have to get the powers in Washington and Brussels to engage in this debate and to be able to persuade them. This may require trade-offs in some areas ('yes, we will allow your warships through but not your tankers -- or vice versa'); it may require having a spine in others ('yes, we would love to continue to act as target practice for armed goatherders, but we are re-assigning these troops to picket duties in the Arctic, Denmark ... so we hope you enjoy Kandahar') but it is first and foremost going to involve pulling together a vision and plan for how we are going to look at the Arctic in a warmer time.

This is an issue that streches across party lines. I just hope that the current leadership can see that.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Add to Technorati Favorites

No comments: