Monday, August 13, 2007

Northern Rights

Northern Rights
August 13, 2007; Page A14

When Russia planted its flag on the Arctic Ocean floor a fortnight ago the world was treated to a spectacular bit of retro-theater, circa 1957. It is as if we were reliving the days of Sputnik. Only this time the Kremlin was officially notifying the world that it intends to dominate the Arctic and control the vast natural resources that it contains.

Of course, if Russia plans to abide by the Law of the Sea Convention, which it has signed, the flag, four kilometers beneath the sea, brings it no closer to owning the treasures buried there. "Jurisdiction over resources is not determined by staking claims," says John Norton Moore, an international law scholar at the University of Virginia. That will be decided by the "commission on the limits of the continental shelf," established under the convention.

On the other hand, if Russia thinks it can bully its way into the Arctic while it stirs up nationalism back home, planting the flag makes perfect sense.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is one Russian neighbor who doesn't seem to be betting on Kremlin honor. His government dismissed the Russian action as a stunt, but last week the prime minister embarked on his own Arctic adventure. He went on a three-day trip to the region and announced Canadian plans to build a deep-water military port there, and a new Canadian Forces winter-fighting school.

Mr. Harper's defense initiatives in the Arctic are animated at least in part by a vastly different world view than that of his recent predecessors in Ottawa. He ran for office promising a stronger military and he has been a staunch defender of Canada's Afghanistan mission. Last month he announced the purchase of six Canadian-made Arctic patrol ships at a cost of more than $6.6 billion. Under his leadership, Canada seems finally to be waking up to the geopolitical risks it has invited by gutting its defense forces and massively shrinking its international relevance over recent decades.

The U.S. has not signed the Law of the Sea Convention, but our NATO allies have, and the commission has already rejected, for lack of evidence, a 2001 Russian claim that the Lomonosov Ridge beneath the Arctic Ocean is an extension of Eurasia. Now the Russians seem to be asking, who is going to stop us? While Mr. Harper's attempts to reclaim a Canadian military presence are important, they are unlikely to be enough to defend the North from the Russian bear. To do that, it will need the U.S., which was even more dismissive of the flag escapade than Canada. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said, "I'm not sure whether they've put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn't have any legal standing or effect on this claim."
[The Americas]

American and European solidarity with Canada against Russian expansionism in the Arctic will be crucial. But Canada's case would be stronger if it weren't simultaneously making its own unsubstantiated claim of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a claim recognized by neither the U.S. nor the European Union.

The U.S. does not challenge Canada's sovereignty over its Arctic lands, and the Law of the Sea allows states to adopt limited environmental protections in ice-covered areas. But the U.S. and EU do maintain that the passage is an international strait and not the internal waters of Canada.

As detailed on the nearby map, the Northwest Passage connects two "high seas," a key geographic test for defining an international strait. A second test, known as "usage," is not recognized by the convention but even it seems to have already been met by submarine traffic. The bottom line is that any attempt to impede transit through the passage's deep water channels -- which offer a path some 7,000 kilometers shorter than the Panama Canal journey from east to west -- goes against established maritime law.

For the U.S., this is no small matter. As U.S. Navy Commander James Kraska explains in a recent issue of the International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, "maintaining a stable regime that ensures global maritime maneuverability and mobility is considered a cornerstone of the nation's economic and national security."

It is very clear that if there is a territorial predator it is Russia and not the U.S., and it is also clear that Canada needs help securing the Arctic. That means that it is in Ottawa's best interest to work out the passage dispute. But that won't be easy. There may be nothing that so symbolizes Canadian identity as the rugged Arctic -- even though an overwhelming majority of Canadians live within 200 miles of the U.S. border.

Unfortunately, despite the sentimentality about the North, Canada has shown little interest in the region. In a 2004 paper on the Northwest Passage dispute for the War Studies Program at the Royal Military College of Canada, doctoral candidate Andrea Charron noted that "Canada has not made securing a presence in the Arctic a priority," because it has "always known it can rely on the U.S." and because "establishing a significant presence in the North is extremely expensive."

Now that Russia is acting up, Canada will have to rethink its priorities. One option, Ms. Charron wrote three years ago in anticipation of growing international interest in the region, would be "Canadian control of the passage as a way of securing the North American perimeter," while "accepting the compromise that comes with relying on our neighbors for security (as was done in the Cold War.)" Given the way Russia is behaving these days, the need for Canadian flexibility may be greater than anyone realizes.

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