Back in the January 2007 issue of Prospect, Peter Shawn Taylor wrote about Canada’s muscular foreign policy under its new conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. One example Taylor gave was Harper’s hawkish stance on the Northwest Passage, the Arctic sea route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For most of the year, the route is unusable, which means that Canada, while formally claiming sovereignty over the passage, has been happy to turn a blind eye to American ships using it for the few days in summer during which it was navigable.
But now global warming and the melting of Arctic ice have raised the possibility that the passage could become a genuine alternative to the Panama canal—the route cuts almost 2,500 miles from the journey, and nearly halves the distance between Tokyo and London. And so Harper’s assertions of Canadian sovereignty over the passage, reported Taylor, were becoming increasingly outspoken.
Now it seems Harper is putting his warships where his mouth is. Earlier this week he announced plans to move six to eight patrol ships into the passage, saying that “the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the north on our terms have never been more urgent.” The US, which claims that the passage should be considered an international waterway, is unsurprisingly crying foul.
But Canada’s new Arctic assertiveness may lead to enemies on further fronts. Harper is keen to assert Canadian sovereignty over the tiny Hans island, which lies at the eastern entrance to the passage. The island is near Greenland, over which Denmark exercises control, and a minor spat between the two countries over control of Hans island a few years ago led to some Canadians calling for a boycott of Danish pastries, in a bizarre forerunner of the mass boycott of Danish products in the Muslim world last year after the Muhammad cartoon scandal.
If you were looking for an example of the unpredictable effects of climate change, they don’t come much better than this.