(by Nicholas Wapshott, NYSun.com) – America is on a collision course with its close ally and northern neighbor, Canada, over who has access to the Northwest Passage, which has become open to sea traffic. The passage became fully clear of ice for the first time this summer because of record melting.

The prospect of large numbers of merchant ships using its short route between Europe and the East has set off a diplomatic row. Canada claims the passage as its own; America, backed by the Europeans and others, says it is open sea and therefore a freely navigable international waterway.

The Northwest Passage has been the Holy Grail of merchant shipping for centuries and the subject of endless fearsome expeditions determined to find a short maritime route between Europe and the valuable spice and silk markets of India and the East.

Until now the passage has been icebound and immensely dangerous to navigate, which caused mariners heading for the Indies and the East to journey first around the treacherous and stormy South Atlantic waters off Cape Horn. In 1914, to shorten the trip, America opened the Panama Canal, which became the standard sea route between America’s East and West coasts, and between Europe and the East.

The latest satellite reports from the European Space Agency, published last month, show that for the first time since such records began, in 1978, the passage is navigable and likely to become increasingly accessible if climate change continues to warm the earth. Use of the passage will shorten the journey between Asia and Europe by about 6,000 miles.

The sovereignty of this valuable stretch of water therefore has become the object of intense diplomatic speculation.

Canada contends that because ships using the passage must pass through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, which are internal Canadian waters, it is entitled to control, regulate, and tax the expected surge in traffic. America and the European Union, however, say the passage is an international strait and that all foreign ships have the right of “transit passage.”

America asserted its right to pass through the Northwest Passage in 1969 by dispatching the oil tanker Manhattan and in 1985 by sending the icebreaker the Polar Sea to test the waterway, in both instances offending the Canadian prime ministers of the day by failing to ask their permission to sail. The Canadians, however, are taking steps this week to assert their own rights to the passage.

“Our view is that it’s our territorial waters and that we govern it accordingly,” the head of the Canadian coast guard, George DaPont, told the BBC. “Obviously the Americans and some European countries have different views. I assume at some point in time they’ll get settled, but we’re pretty confident that they’re Canadian territorial waters and that we should be regulating and asserting our control over them as we would over any other part of our territorial water.

“It’s critical. It’s part of our history. Like any country, it’s important to assert your control over your country and your territorial waters,” he said.

In response to the new circumstances, the Canadian government on Monday ordered a Canadian coast guard icebreaker laden with scientists, the Amundsen, to make a detailed survey of the route. The ship is named after the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first person to travel the passage in 1905, who made the journey in a wooden sailboat.

Prime Minister Harper also announced in July the commissioning of six new Canadian naval vessels with icebreaking hulls to increase the number of patrols of the passage and the Arctic Sea. And he has ordered the building of a new deepwater port and a military base in the Arctic north to defend Canada’s national interests.

“Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long. This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing, on strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic,” Mr. Harper said.

As the ice continues to retreat, the Northwest Passage has become increasingly navigable. In the last 100 years, no more than 110 vessels have made the journey. However, in the last 10 years recreational sailings through the passage have become increasingly commonplace. Last month a light catamaran with a French and Belgian crew sailed the full 3,200 miles.

The opening of the passage is not the only thing troubling the Canadians about the effect of climate change on their territory. In August, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean 14,000 feet beneath the North Pole, in a prelude to claiming Russian sovereignty over the underwater territory.

The value of natural resources underneath the Arctic would dwarf even the lucrative levies the Canadians are seeking to impose on commercial trade through the Northwest Passage. A recent American study suggested that the forbidding underwater terrain might bear as much as a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves.

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.


1. Over what territorial issue are the U.S. and Canada clashing?

2. Why is the issue of the Northwest Passage so important to the U.S. and Canada? Be specific.

3. Why has the Northwest Passage only recently become a contentious issue? Be specific.

4. What has been the standard sea route for Western merchant ships traveling to the Indies and the East for approximately the past 100 years?

5. a) Define sovereignty as used in the article in para. 6.
b) Why does the U.S. say that Canada does not have sovereignty over the Northwest Passage?
c) How does Canada dispute this assertion?

6. What actions has Canada taken to assert its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage?

7. a) What much larger prospect for revenue from the Arctic does Canada have than the tariffs the government wants to put on ships traveling through the Northwest Passage?
b) With whom does Canada face a dispute on this issue? Why?


Read about the Northwest Passage at Wikipedia.org.

Click here for a map of the Northwest Passage.

For detailed information, photos and video on the Northwest Passage, go to Canada’s news agency CBC at cbc.ca/news/background/northwest-passage/.

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