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The U.S. – Canada Northwest Passage Dispute

Canada and the United States enjoy a peaceful coexistence – as allies and trading partners, they tend to cooperate on most important issues. However, one sticking point in their otherwise cordial relationship is a dispute over Canadian territorial claims of the Northwest Passage: coastal waters far above Canada’s northern coast in the Arctic circle. For years, this issue has been largely inconsequential. The region was, and still is, sparsely inhabited, and maritime traffic was essentially nonexistent. Recently, however, the melting of sea ice due to climate change has made the Northwest Passage a more viable route for commercial shipping. As temperatures rise and the ice continues to melt, shipping routes through the Arctic could cut transit times by 40% on major routes like those connecting  China and Europe. 

Political rhetoric has also brought the issue back to the fore. Last March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reminded the Arctic Council that “the US has a long contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage.” The feud has been a visible point of contention a number of times in the past. In 1969, the U.S. oil tanker SS Manhattan transited the passage without permission from Canada, despite receiving assistance from Canadian icebreakers during the voyage. In response, Canada passed legislation asserting control over environmental regulations across the Northwest Passage. Since the 1980s, the U.S. and Canada have essentially agreed to disagree on the issue, with little discourse on the issue until now. However, this arrangement may soon prove to be untenable as shipping traffic in the region rapidly increases. 

Canada has long claimed the Northwest Passage as internal territorial waters, on the basis of a long history of native Inuit use of the waters, as well as legal arguments stemming from decades-old cases settled by the the International Court of Justice. The U.S. has long countered this claim on the basis of its interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a treaty which it accepts as international law but has never been ratified by Congress. Under this view, the U.S. sees the passage as an international strait connecting two large bodies of water. However, the “international strait” designation is usually only used in cases where there is a large volume of traffic transiting the strait. Currently, there is not much traffic, but traffic will likely increase as ice continues to melt. Under this international strait framework, Canada has the right to regulate most aspects of traffic in the waterway, yet cannot prohibit or restrict international shipping traffic.

The Northwest Passage is one of two major sea routes in the Arctic Circle – the other, the Northern Sea Route, hugs Russia’s northern coastline and runs from Iceland to Alaska. The U.S. is engaged in  a similar dispute with Russia, which has increased its military presence on its northern coast, controls all shipping traffic along the Northern Sea Route, and is expanding economic development of the region in conjunction with China. Yet, this dispute is just one of many geopolitical disputes the U.S. currently has with Russia; in contrast, the dispute with Canada has more and larger implications for the U.S., as the Northwest Passage could be a major route for shipping commercial goods between Alaska and the East Coast or supplying U.S. military installations in Thule, Greenland. While the U.S. may not be in the position to directly confront Russia’s military buildup above the Arctic Circle, it is more likely to hammer out an agreement with Canada concerning shipping and commercial activity regulation in the Northwest Passage. 

As a first step towards a solution, the U.S should establish greater cooperation with Canada on environmental issues. Arctic ecosystems are highly fragile and are already under strain from the accelerating pace of warming. Furthermore, data shows that warming is progressing in the Arctic region at a much faster rate than other regions in the world. Although sea ice, harsh conditions, and minimal navigational infrastructure make travel through the Northwest Passage dangerous, the swift pace of warming means that commercial shipping through the Northwest Passage routes will become more viable and common within the next few years. In 2018, 20 million tons of cargo passed through the Northwest Passage; though miniscule compared to most established international shipping lanes, they doubled from the previous year. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that shipping lanes in the Arctic could be ice free year-round within the next 20 years. 

An ideal agreement would involve close cooperation or joint regulation between Canada and the U.S. on environmental protection issues. However, it is important to recognize that environmental protection is not a priority for the Trump administration. Instead of an environment-based solution, one could therefore envision a less ideal arrangement, such as one in which the U.S. gains unrestricted rights to oil extraction in a 21,000 square kilometer disputed area in the Beaufort Sea in exchange for recognizing and helping enforce Canadian territorial claims. 

It is critically important that both governments find ways to cooperate on environmental issues. However, regardless of how much progress is made on curbing emissions, warming will continue for the foreseeable future. Consequently, the inevitable rise in shipping will lead to other concerns – such as how to ensure adequate search and rescue (SAR) capabilities in the event of emergencies. According to a 2011 Arctic Council agreement, the U.S. is responsible for search and rescue in a wide swath of ocean stretching from Alaska to the North Pole and the Kamchatka Peninsula, an area that does not overlap with Canada’s territorial claim. The U.S. has no permanent SAR presence above the Arctic Circle, and has only one icebreaker operating in the region compared to Russia’s fleet of 40 icebreakers or Canada’s ten. In this sense, the U.S. has very little leverage over Canada – it cannot offer assistance in regulating, patrolling, or otherwise administering maritime traffic in the Arctic.  Closer cooperation or mutual agreement over how to deploy SAR capabilities, potentially including both countries, could be another step towards a solution. 

While several options are available to them, an immediate solution to the U.S. and Canada’s Arctic dispute remains unclear.  What is definite is that as maritime activity rapidly increases, finding a solution will be more urgent than ever before. Demand for Arctic resources and shipping lanes will rapidly increase as warming continues, and responsible management of this demand will be very difficult absent agreement between the U.S. and Canada.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Coast Guard News)