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Whose Arctic Is It, Anyway?
Description: With geriatric fleets of icebreakers on both sides, the dispute between Canada and the United States over the status of the Northwest Passage could fall to the U.S. side by default despite tough words from Ottawa, says an expert on the issue.
Date: 16 November 2006
Author: Matthew Little
Source: Epoch Times
With geriatric fleets of icebreakers on both sides, the dispute between Canada and the United States over the status of the Northwest Passage could fall to the U.S. side by default despite tough words from Ottawa, says an expert on the issue.

The fabled Northwest Passage—a sea route through Canada's ice-ridden Arctic Archipelago—is quickly becoming a key navigation route as global warming breaks the hold Arctic ice has long had on the northern waters. Experts believe that before the end of the century, the Canadian Arctic may be completely ice free in the summer.

With less ice comes more ships hoping to cash in on a trip that shaves thousands of miles off the current route from Asia to Europe through the Panama Canal.

Last month, the Canadian Coast Guard's research icebreaker sailed through the Bellot, Fury, and Helca Straits, which make up some of the various routes the passage can take. Never before has the ice allowed a ship to sail those straits at this time of year, said scientists on board the vessel. Furthermore, they said they encountered no ice at all.

Canada and the United States have disagreed for decades over the status of the Northwest Passage. The United States maintains that although the Northwest Passage falls under Canadian territory, it is also an international navigation route which should be open to all marine traffic.

Canada, however, is adamant that the passage is within Canadian internal waters and should thus be subject to the full breadth of Canadian law. For decades, the Canadian government has required ships passing through the Arctic to seek permission from Canadian authorities. Several countries—including the United States—often fail to heed the Canadians' request.

The dispute was highlighted recently when Paul Cellucci, former U.S ambassador to Canada, backed the Canadian position that the waterway would be best policed as internal waters of Canada.

"It is in the security interests of the United States that it be under the control of Canada," he said at a conference in Ottawa. His comments point to the irony of the U.S. stance: If the Northwest Passage is open to all marine traffic, it would have to include traffic from countries that could potentially pose a security threat to North America.

But Cellucci's position is at odds with that of current U.S. ambassador David Wilkins, who promptly restated the U.S. position that the Northwest Passage is an international strait.

Regardless of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's current hard line on asserting Canada's sovereignty in the Arctic, the passageway is at risk of becoming an international strait by default, says Michael Byers, an international law expert at the University of British Columbia.

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