Canada and the U.S. Need to Make a Deal on the Northwest Passage

October 28, 2020 Topic: Security Region: arctic Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: CanadaRussiaChinaArctic CircleEnergyTrade

Canada and the U.S. Need to Make a Deal on the Northwest Passage

Diverging viewpoints on the Northwest Passage present China and other actors with the opportunity to exploit this ambiguity by utilizing the route for both commercial and military purposes.

The Northwest Passage has been a longstanding point of contention between Canada and the United States. In 2019, U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dubbed Canada’s Northwest Passage claim “illegitimate“ and likened it to Russia’s outlandish Arctic ambitions. Since the Northwest Passage cuts through the center of Canada’s Arctic archipelagos, the Canadian Government considers the passage part of Canada’s historic internal waters, while the United States views it as an international strait similar to the Straits of Malacca or Gibraltar. What both sides fail to appreciate is these diverging viewpoints on the Northwest Passage present China and other actors with the opportunity to exploit this ambiguity by utilizing the route for both commercial and military purposes. Until a consensus found, the Northwest Passage remains a glaring gap in the North American security perimeter. In examining both the legal and strategic perspectives of both sides, it is clear that a joint arrangement for surveillance over the Northwest Passage could resolve this decades-long strain between the United States and one of its closest allies.

As a preliminary, it is useful to reflect on the unique history of the Northwest Passage dilemma. Concerns about Canada’s Arctic sovereignty rose to prominence in 1969 during the “Manhattan Crisis.” The Manhattan Crisis was triggered when a U.S oil tanker, the SS Manhattan, declined to ask permission to enter the Northwest Passage resulting in condemnation from Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The U.S-Canadian dispute on the passage re-emerged in Canada’s national spotlight in 1985 when the controversial transit of the USCGC Polar Sea through the passage sparked outrage in Canada’s Parliament. By 1988 a frustrated Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told his friend President Ronald Reagan that the Northwest Passage was Canadian, “lock, stock and iceberg” and even floated the idea of purchasing nuclear submarines to assert sovereignty in the north.

As the climate change issue emerged during the early 2000s, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper reintroduced the importance of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty by launching a new strategy that pledged funding for a deep-water Arctic port, armed naval icebreakers, and a new satellite-based surveillance system. This ambitious policy was later adjusted to fund lightly armed Arctic naval patrol vessels instead of developing full-scale icebreakers. Almost two decades later, Canada has finally launched its first domestically built Arctic patrol vessel, HMCS Harry DeWolf. With several more ships still years away from completion, Canada still faces a sizable capability gap in the Arctic region that makes controlling the vast Arctic and the Northwest Passage problematic.

Against this backdrop, climate change and thinner ice levels have coincided with a steady yet still humble increase in Northwest Passage maritime transits. After all, when compared to the Panama Channel, the Northwest passage is a 4,000-mile shortcut without Panamax restrictions. In 2019 there were a total of twenty-three transits of the Northwest Passage (with five of the transits conducted by cargo vessels) compared to just six total transits in 2000. Although the viability of the passage as a maritime shipping route remains negligible (especially due to exorbitant insurance costs), its practicality will continue to increase as the Arctic region inches toward ice-free summers. When considering China’s claim to be a near-Arctic state and its dubious goal of “creating a polar silk road,” it is foreseeable that China may take stronger action to build inroads into the Arctic region. It will have the capability to do this since China is poised to expand its nuclear-powered icebreaker fleet.

The primary basis for U.S. opposition to Canada’s internal waters claim over the Northwest Passage is that the international legal precedence could pose a challenge to the strategic interests of the United States in other parts of the world. As President Reagan aptly wrote in 1987, “I have to say in all candor that we cannot agree to an arrangement that obliges us to seek permission for our vessels to navigate through the Northwest Passage. To do so would adversely affect our legitimate right to freely transit other important areas globally.”

These sentiments reflect the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOS) which gives states complete control over internal waters while still maintaining that other countries have the presumptive right to enter internal waters. However, examining this standpoint at a deeper level reveals that the precedence set by the recognition of the Northwest Passage as Canadian internal waters could impact only a small number of disputes over areas of the world that are insignificant for maritime mobility, such as the Kerch Strait. The majority of the globe’s strategically important straits, such as the Strait of Hormuz, are not exclusively within the confines of the bordering state’s waters and their historic use makes their status impossible to legally challenge. In the few cases where strategic straits are entirely internal waters, like the Danish and Turkish straits, international treaties already govern their use. It can be argued that the United States would benefit more from a joint arrangement concerning the Northwest Passage than it would by maintaining the status quo during this era of great power competition in the Arctic.

Several frameworks that could be applied to resolve the Northwest Passage dispute can be found around the world. One of them includes the cooperative mechanism used in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, which facilitates cooperation between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia for maintaining navigational safety and security in one of the world’s most important shipping routes. Within North America, the International Joint Commission (ICJ) has been an important binational organization between Canada and the United States for the investigation of boundary and environmental issues within the Great lakes. As an independent organization that holds authority over the Great Lakes’ infrastructure permits and water use, the ICJ has been an exemplary model of resource sharing and environmental protection. In the St. Lawrence Seaway, two separate government corporations from Canada and the United States jointly administer the seaway, showing and executing a high level of coordination for inspections, tolls, and traffic management within the highly visible shipping route. Canada and the United States also developed the highly effective “Shiprider“ program which partners the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and U.S. Coast Guard in joint patrols to seamlessly combat crime on both sides of the maritime border, eliminating jurisdictional concerns. Within the military domain, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has proven itself in its mission of controlling the continental airspace. A maritime awareness component added to NORAD in 2006 has laid the foundation for a joint command over the Northwest Passage.

To shore up U.S. support for Canada’s Northwest Passage claim, Canada should create a maritime command attached to NORAD that is tasked with monitoring the Northwest Passage. Forming a bilateral maritime command of the Northwest Passage could resolve both Canadian and United States concerns about international maritime travel in the Arctic. For Canada, this arrangement would strengthen Canadian sovereignty over its Arctic archipelagos and provide real-time information about all ships traversing the passage in accordance with the existing 1998 treaty on cooperation. It could also complement recent efforts to create a safe shipping corridor through search and rescue burden-sharing across the expansive 1,450 km route, while also improving hydrographic surveying. After all, the U.S. Navy submarine USS Seadragon conducted the first hydrographic survey of the Northwest Passage. Canada is also instrumental in providing icebreaking services for the U.S. Airforce Base in Thule, Greenland, which demonstrates how interdependent both allies are in the Arctic theatre. With Canada and the United States scrambling to close their Arctic capability deficit in order to catch up with China and Russia, it would be beneficial for both countries to share currently limited Arctic maritime capabilities.

For the United States, a binational command over the Northwest Passage would also secure a strategically imperative direct route between Alaska and the East Coast population centers, further enhancing America’s homeland security by diminishing U.S. reliance on the Panama Canal. This would complement existing moves made by the Trump administration, which has given pressing attention to America’s capability gap in the Arctic by launching an ambitious plan to build Polar Class Security Cutters by 2029. With experts calling for the construction of a U.S. Arctic deep-water port, the United States could benefit from the use of Canada’s newly completed Arctic deep-water port in Nanisivik, Nunavut, until an American deep-water Arctic port is operational. More importantly, a clearly defined Northwest Passage would convey to China that they should hesitate about sending its growing fleet of naval icebreakers and submarines through the passage unannounced.

In an era when U.S. and Canadian relations with China are at an all-time low, a bilateral agreement can prevent China from exploiting this silent dispute within the Canada-U.S. alliance. For now, China has requested and been granted permission from Canada for its research icebreaker Snow Dragon 2 to traverse the Northwest Passage on at least two separate occasions. However, it would be easy to envision China, in response to U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the Strait of Taiwan, sending one of its naval icebreakers through the Northwest Passage without notice to reinforce its “near Arctic” status. Such a scenario would rival any previous dispute over the Northwest Passage and expose a sizable gap in North America’s robust security perimeter. Due to Canada’s distaste for the further militarization of the Arctic, the salient focus of a binational command should be the promotion of maritime safety and security while simultaneously laying the groundwork for Anti-Area/Access Denial (A2/AD) capabilities should they become necessary in the future.