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Flag-wars and Arctic hot-spots

Russia has planted a flag on the sea bed to further its case to sovereignty over the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. Shortly after the Russian flag-planting, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, made a trip to the Canadian part of the northern region to strengthen Canada’s rights in the High Arctic. The Canadians are not much pleased by Russia’s ‘15th century’ tactics. The United States objects to Canada’s claim that the North-West Passage is an internal Canadian waterway. Denmark does not accept that Hans Island is part of Canada, claiming it rather to be part of Greenland. Norway also has an interest in the Polar region. Things are heating up in the Arctic and the Russian incident is only the latest in the so-called ‘flag wars’. Why is there so much interest? Who is interested in what?

Global warming is changing the northern world. With rising temperatures the area is becoming more accessible for human economic exploitation. In the future there will be frozen water (icebergs) to sell to a world increasingly short of fresh water. As the ice retreats, exploitation of oil and natural gas reserves becomes significantly easier. The North Pole and adjacent areas are the responsibility of the International Seabed Authority as the area is not part of any single country. There are international conventions with respect to developments on the continental shelf and geological composition of the shelf and of any adjacent national territory is significant. The technical evidence required is clearly established by the conventions. Russia has made a formal claim through the United Nations which it has been asked to resubmit. In this respect Russia will need to conform to international conventions. Its expedition was primarily designed to gather more evidence in order to resubmit its formal claim (estimated to be planned for sometime in 2009).

The flag incident is seen as ‘symbolic’ rather than anything else but it has created a reaction with respect to other parts of the northern region. Denmark, responsible for the external affairs of Greenland, has already invested huge sums in geological surveys of the Arctic floor and is willing to challenge others, Russian in particular, with respect to rights over the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada too is anxious to protect its interests in the Ridge. The Ridge is adjacent to both Greenland and Ellesmere Island (part of Canada). There has been cooperation between the two governments over evidence-gathering geological exploration of the Ridge. When Russia makes the formal claim, counter-claims will be made.

Denmark is in conflict with Canada over an island in the Nares Strait. The Danish flag has been planted several times on Hans Island and this has lead to Canadian counter-measures. Denmark has military capacity in the region and has sustained its interests with respect to Hans Island but this issue is still unresolved in legal terms.

Hans Island gives command over the waters of the Nares Strait. The prospect of a new shipping route through the North-West Passage capable for a few weeks a year of reducing the cost of shipping from the eastern seaboard to Asia is intensifying interest. The North-West Passage could lop off a couple of thousand kilometers from the alternative Panama Canal route. The United States has interests because of Alaska. It has challenged Canada’s claims with respect to the Passage. US nuclear submarines have been reported in the past as having passed through waters that the Canadian government considers to be Canadian. The United States Geological Survey is also aware of the huge economic potential of the High Arctic: it holds that a quarter of the undiscovered energy resources are located in the region.

Stephen Harper indicated during the election campaign that led to his Primiership, that he would take a more aggressive attitude in the High Arctic including the possibility of a greater military presence, a presence that has been comparatively lacking. Flag planting, according to Harper at the time, does not count (the Canadians put a flag on Hans Island in 2005) ‘ships and surveillance’ did. Harper is making good his election promises with respect to its High Arctic waterways and the Canadian government has already announced plans to build patrol vessels suitable for operation in Arctic conditions, giving substance to Harper’s policy of an ‘aggressive Arctic agenda’. Harper is also aware that diplomacy is also a significant issue as it is not just the United States that disputes Canada’s control over the North-West Passage.