Inside a high-security facility in southern England this week, two Canadian officers scribbled notes as they learned how to spot Russian submarines by listening to faint sounds reflected off the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Later, they would spend hours memorizing the intricate and nearly silent audio patterns made by the latest generation of Russian and U.S. submarines, highly classified knowledge that will be used by Canada to follow the increasingly assertive manoeuvres taking place beneath the Arctic ice.
"It's become a real cat-and-mouse game, actually, submarines keep trying to improve their noise-quieting technology, and we try to improve our listening technology to stay ahead. It's a constant challenge," said Captain Glen Gullison, from the Canadian military's Acoustic Data Analysis Centre in Halifax.
This little-known aspect of Canada's military operations, conducted by 200 people trained in the dark arts of sub-spotting, has just taken on a new prominence as Prime Minister Stephen Harper laid out plans this week to militarize Canada's claims on the Arctic.
In recent months, a Cold War-style game of imperial conquest has developed beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean and the Northwest Passage, a submarine-driven dispute involving the United States, Norway, Denmark and especially Canada and Russia. Mr. Harper used this week's Throne Speech to signal the federal government was stepping up its presence in the Far North, pledging a bold and expensive military campaign to assert sovereignty over territory claimed by Canada, and areas of the Arctic that are still in dispute.
"The North needs new attention," the Prime Minister said. "Defending our sovereignty in the North also demands that we maintain the capacity to act."
"New Arctic patrol ships and expanded aerial surveillance will guard Canada's Far North and the Northwest Passage," Mr. Harper said. "As well, the size and capabilities of the Arctic Rangers will be expanded to better patrol our vast Arctic territory."
It was the top item in the provocative Throne Speech, and it implied an expansion of the Conservatives' ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy, a plan that could cost billions of dollars and intended, first and foremost, to establish Canadian force and surveillance in the Arctic. It envisions an Arctic Warfare Training Centre and at least 1,000 soldiers in the Arctic.
For many Canadians, these words were a natural and welcome bid to defend Canada's ownership of the Far North in the face of challenges from the United States, the Scandinavian nations and especially Russia, which sent research submarines beneath the ice this summer to plant a Russian flag — conquistador-style — directly beneath the ice at the North Pole, part of its claim to ownership of 45 per cent of the Arctic.
But it's not at all clear that Canada really owns any of the Arctic Ocean. And if Canada's legal claims to the northern sea prove to be unfounded, its new military thrust could place it in the company of Russia as an aggressor battling for the world's last pools of oil in a legal no man's land.
The fight for ownership of the Arctic Ocean and the seabed beneath it, driven by the possibility of finding immeasurable quantities of oil and gas, is a five-way battle between Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark and the United States in which Canada has no particular privilege.
"As a matter of legal principle, Canada has no greater claim on the Arctic than any of the other four Arctic states, or indeed than any state in the world, quite frankly," said Rosemary Rayfuse, a professor at Australia's University of New South Wales and an expert on the Law of the Sea treaty. "Depending on geological realities, Canada may have a geological claim on some extension of the continental shelf, although I think that Russia and Norway have the greatest amount, from what I've seen."
At the heart of the issue is an undersea mountain range, buried deep beneath the ice, known as the Lomonosov Ridge. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can claim undersea territory as their own if they can prove that it is directly linked to an extension of their own section of continental plate.
Russia has spent billions attempting to prove, using submarines, that its territory is connected to the North Pole, and the United States has researched similar claims involving Alaska. But the Canadian government only began research, budgeted at $70-million, in 2004, and it is not at all clear that the ridge is connected to any part of Canada.
In fact, Mr. Harper's Throne Speech this week included a pledge to "complete comprehensive mapping of Canada's Arctic seabed," a proposal that many international-law experts say is being made years too late, and that some characterize as a desperate bid to find a link between Canada and the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada has until 2013 to provide geological evidence of any claims on the Arctic under the Law of the Sea treaty; Russia's deadline is 2009, and the United States hasn't ratified the treaty, although is expected to do so in the near future.
This was all an academic point involving a beautiful but useless stretch of ice until recently, when rising global temperatures caused the ice to start melting. Now some scientists predict that the Arctic cap could be completely melted throughout the summer by 2040.
This opens up the possibility of enormous oil and gas resources, larger than those stored in the Middle East, available to whoever can claim to own the roof of the world. It's a dark irony that the burning of fossil fuels that contributed to the ice melt may end up making it possible to extract another century's worth of earth-warming petroleum reserves from beneath that ice. But it's a possibility that is driving countries like Canada to spend millions.
"The petroleum reserves, especially around the continental ridges themselves, could be quite profound — we're talking about anything from 50 to 100 million barrels," said Manouchehr Takin, a senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London. He believes that the large volumes of oil and gas around the continental shelf could be fairly easy to exploit, and could be extracted within about 10 years.
But Canada is far from proving that it owns any part of the Arctic Ocean, even as it prepares to set up air and land patrols in the northernmost regions through the ambitious Canada First Defence Strategy. And we have been wrong before. Canada's claim on Hans Island, a lifeless piece of rock between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, became a full-blown international dispute in 2005, when then-defence minister Bill Graham landed on the island and planted Canada's flag, leading to diplomatic threats from Denmark.
Satellite studies later showed that the island was located more in Danish than in Canadian territory, and scientists say that the most recent geological surveys of continental ridges seem to show that it is better defined as part of Greenland.
There is a worry, therefore, that Canada may be sending its military into a stretch of territory that is not legally its own, and that may turn out to be part of another country. Some legal experts say that it is inflammatory and dangerous to militarize a conflict that ought to be kept in more polite domains.
"Ultimately, the stuff in the high Arctic is politics," said Ted McDorman, a professor of coastal and marine law at the University of Victoria. "It's a matter of coming to an agreement between countries as to how to deal with that shelf area on Lomonosov Ridge, assuming it meets the geological requirements. Putting the military up there could just make it harder for the Russians to negotiate. It'll make them dig in a little more."
Others suggest that the use of the military in the North is simply beside the point, a publicity campaign with little legal value.
"Issues in the North aren't going to be dealt with by the Canadian Forces," Douglas Bland, chairman of the defence management studies program at Queen's University, told the Defense News. "They'll be handled by diplomacy and other similar means."
In the Northwest Passage, a thousand kilometres south of the Arctic Ocean, there is a stronger case for boatloads of rifle-toting Canadians to be part of the program, precisely because it isn't clear that Canada owns it. Under maritime law, the passage may well be defined as an international shipping channel; this is how the United States has long defined it, and the dispute over its status has been a frequent cause of tension between the United States and Canada.
This is where soldiers come in: Canada can only claim ownership of the Passage if it actively challenges other attempts by other countries to use the passage, something it has failed to do on two occasions, both involving U.S. vessels making the crossing in defiance of Canada. This has become a much bigger threat with global warming, as evidenced by this week's unprecedented shipment of fertilizer from Russia to Churchill, Man., a voyage that wouldn't have been possible a few years ago.
But this still led some observers to question Mr. Harper's use of combat troops to accomplish what is essentially a modest act of policing, especially when officials close to the U.S. administration, including former ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, have suggested that U.S. interests might be best served by letting Canada have the Northwest Passage.
"I do think that it's important to demonstrate a policing presence," said Michael Byers, an international-law professor at the University of British Columbia. "And whether it's provided by a frigate or a Coast Guard icebreaker doesn't really matter; it's having a presence and having the ability to put a handful of armed men on a vessel with a helicopter if we need to.
"So I'm a little bit skeptical of Mr. Harper's choice of the navy as the enforcement mechanism, given that we have a Coast Guard with decades of experience," Dr. Byers said. "I wonder whether the navy was the right choice in terms of allocating the funds for northern vessels."
At the moment, the areas under dispute seem likely to involve only a small portion of Arctic seabed, perhaps only 5 per cent. The submarine patrols being monitored so carefully beneath the Arctic Ocean and the Northwest Passage aren't hostile, and even the Russian flag-planting exercise was claimed to be little more than a research expedition (though many observers say it could be used as future evidence for a territory claim). So some say that Canada should adopt a much more passive approach to the Arctic.
"I think what it might make sense for Canada to do is just to react to what other countries are doing. … If other countries seem to be overreaching, then Canada has to think about what is appropriate to do in that situation, and if other countries aren't following the rules … you don't have any obligation to follow them yourself," said Eric Posner, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago.
Indeed, some say that the idea of a northern Cold War has arisen simply because some leaders, notably Mr. Harper, have insisted in describing it that way.
"There's a rhetoric of conflict surrounding this issue, and that unfortunately can become self-fulfilling," Dr. Byers said. "I'm not entirely sure about Mr. Harper himself, who until the Throne Speech was focused almost entirely on the military dimension of Arctic sovereignty. But at least this week he did, for the first time, talk about social and economic development … so he's at last recognized that this is a multidimensional issue."
But even if he risked escalating a legal standoff into a military issue, Mr. Harper won applause from a number of informed observers, who say that the contentious aspects of the Arctic issue are bound to be settled, in the end, through sheer might. An escalating submarine war beneath the ice, in this view, is well worth pursuing.
"The Law of the Sea treaty itself is quite ambiguous here, and in fact it almost encourages this type of behaviour," Mr. Posner said.
"So to the extent that it's ambiguous, then the outcome will be determined by simple power."
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