Could the United States and its neighbor Canada ever go to war?
Never a likely prospect, and yet an a mounting conflict over the use of the North West Passage, lying in Canada's territorial waters, and offering a water connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans , is in prospect. Thus far it has done little more than spur political debate. But in the past month the stakes in this dispute have been increased, and significantly.
First, on July 9, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada was planning to build eight new armed vessels to reassert its sovereignty over the region.
A day later, a U.S. Admiral, Rear Admiral Timothy McGee, pledged to increase its fleet of ships , contending as the Canadian action created implications for national energy security
Even more attention-getting was Admiral McGee's response to a reporter's question that the U.S. Navy could consider sending an aircraft carrier to the area, along with aircraft and other vessels.
It is perhaps far-fetched to suggest that there could be a military response here, the U.S. with a population base of 300 million, Canada at 33 million, the U.S. with more military hardware than the rest of the world combined, and yet there could be a military skirmish.
With receding ice packs and floes, it is expected that use of this long water route will increase dramatically in the years immediately ahead. And it addition to the commercial value of an easier path between the oceans, there are other high stakes. Oil.
The Beaufort Sea which lies off the Canadian coast is believed to hold major resources of the sought-after liquid and already U.S. spokesmen are laying claim to some of its riches.
In recent days another major player in the northern stakes , Russia, laid a flag on the ocean bottom in the North Pole of Arctic, thus laying claim to its entitlement. Sweden, Norway and Denmark will doubtless also deal into the game but are seen as minor players.
Canada will ultimately, despite current protests, seek a compromise with the Russians as the two countries are seen as having the most legitimate control over the area. Canada would probably agree that Russia have territorial control to the Arctic territory off its huge coastline but would make the same claim for the northern waters on its coastline. Many feel that an agreement between the two big countries, one and two in the world, Russia number one, would be advantageous to both. At the moment, however, they are in dispute with Russia claiming the waters of the North Pole.
The North West Passage, officially now referred to in Canadian reports as Canada's Internal Waters, is a sea route through the Canadian archipelago connecting the two oceans.
Although the United States recognizes Canada's ownership of the lands and islands surrounding the Passage, it claims that it is an international waterway. And consistent with its policy relative to other such waterways the U.S. contends that its ships should have unimpeded movement. It has long been the practice, however, for U.S. and other ships entering the Passage to notify Canadian authorities in advance. There have been several instances though when U.S. ships gained access without notification. The most recent of these reports of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines passing through the waterway. This not only brought an official response from the Canadian government but an angry outcry from many of its citizens.
Canada has seen any unauthorized intrusion in the Passage as an attack on Canadian sovereignty. Prime Minister Harper shortly after the submarine penetration , this in recent days, announced construction of six to eight armed patrol ships to assert Canada's authority and has as well indicated a deep sea port would be constructed and that the country's military presence would be strengthened. Igaluit is expected to be the site of the first deep water port established in the Arctic.
Recently this was a sharp division of opinion about the U.S. stance on the Arctic lands. A former Canadian Ambassador, Paul Cellucci favored Canadian control of the Passage, arguing that it was in the best interest of security for North America to have Canada assume that role which it in fact has carried out for years. Within a day, however, David Wilkins, the current U.S. Ambassador, a strong supporter of President Bush's policies, was insistent that the route was innovational waters and open to travel by U.S. ships without impediment. He said both the security and private business interests of his country must be protected.
Rear Admiral McGee, head of naval oceanography ,said the U.S. would pursue a "international coalition" approach to solving differences. Another Rear Admiral, Brian Salerno supported this approach. .
U.S. studies indicate that one-quarter of the world's untapped oil and gas reserves rest within the disputed Arctic waters. Prime Minister Harper said the northern resources were crucial to Canada"s future and the government would strongly make its case.
A University of British Columbia professor, Michael Byers said Canada "would experience of loss of sovereignty if foreign ships were to use the Passage . " he added " currently (without a stronger presence) the welcome mat is out for fly-by-night companies."
Global warming is largely responsible for the new rhetoric from both sides as climate change could produce a reduction of sea ice in the Arctic within a century. This would open up the Passage for substantial commercial traffic, especially if there are the expected oil and natural gas finds in the Beaufort Sea.
Questions about Canada's control of the waterway goes back for years and following the unauthorized entry of the U.S. Manhattan in 1969, Canada under then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau proposed in 1970 unilateral action that would claim the waterway as internal Canadian waters.
The proposed Canadian move caused serious concern in the U.S's Foreign Affairs office. In a memorandum to Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, Theodore Eliot Jr., an executive secretary, wrote " this proposed action is unjustified under International Law, and is a serious danger to private U..S. interests." Eliot wrote " this seriously degrades the entire U.S. Law of Sea posture on which our military mobility depends." He added the Canadian action was prompted by inflamed nationalists opposed to a second excursion into the Passage by the massive Manhattan.
The Canadian delegation was headed by the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., Marcel Cadieux,Alan Beesley, legal adviser to the Minister of External Affairs, and Ivan Head of the Prime Minister's office. Eliot wrote that the delegation through the Ambassador made a flat assertion of Canadian sovereignty over a large area of the high seas. He said the Canadians considered the Passage as an internal waterway and were going to impose a 100mile pollution zone.
Rather surprisingly the usual polite Canadians Eliot wrote " are not interested in our comments, suggestions or alternatives." The Ambassador said Trudeau was under "tremendous pressure" to take steps to protect the country's sovereignty over the Arctic properties. The delegation said, however, that the right of passage would be conveyed to those seeking to use the waterway but subject to Canadian law. Eliot said Canada wanted to enforce its own laws over the myriad channels so as a means of protecting the environment from unsafe ships and accidental oil spills.
With global warming and the prospect of a massive oil and gas patch, the Canadian Arctic is seen as an area that will undergo major growth in the years ahead.
The late Prime Minister Trudeau was firm in his resolve to establish Canadian control. I heard him years later, and with a laugh, say " the best way for us to stop unauthorized foreign ships is to send a Mountie (RCMP) to arrest them."
Doubtlessly Canada will need much more in the way of police protection should the U.S., as warned by a U.S. navy Admiral that the dispatch of an aircraft carrier to the region could be considered.
Canada as the second largest country in the world spans 3400 miles from Cape Spear in Newfoundland-Labrador to the Alaskan border. The country could house eighteen countries the size of France and is 400 times as large as California.
One thing the Canadian will have going for it should the dispute fester is public opinion. Canadians clearly see it as a fight over their sovereignty. There is concern in Canada that President Bush, who they see as an aggressive bully, would be impossible to deal with on a consultative basis.
Arnie Patterson is a veteran Canadian journalist and broadcaster. A former Principal Press Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Patterson is a columnist for the Halifax Daily News and a retired radio stations owner.