Defense of the Realm

14.04.2004

Already countries are positioning themselves in a new world brought about by climatic change

Recently Canada has taken an unprecedented move of sending one of its largest warships, a squadron of helicopters and 200 ground troops to the high Arctic this summer in an exercise to show a little military muscle in the great white north. For Canada this is quite a sizable force. To put it in proper perspective, the entire Canadian army is around a quarter of million troops; for a major overseas operation, such as in Haiti, 450 troops were sent, which was considered large and even stretching the capacity of the Canadian Armed forces (at first the Canadian government wanted to send only sixty, but bowed to political pressure).

Hans Island, Photo:GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA

Such a relatively large military exercise, naturally, raises a question: what is going on in the arctic? Is this an extension of the war on terror? Maybe the Canadians know where Osama bin Laden is; after all, that sneaky terrorist had everyone looking for him somewhere in the warmth of the Middle East, and all along he has been hiding in an igloo somewhere up north! No wonder the Yanks could never find him.

Yet the idea of Osama bin Laden hiding in the Arctic is stretching the imagination a little too far, even for the most rabid conspiracy theorist. No, the real reason for Canada's military presence in the north is to send a clear message to other countries: "we are here."

The logistics of transporting and supporting many soldiers, sailors and airmen to such an isolated area will be formidable. Code-named "Narwhal", this military exercise will cost an estimated 5 million dollars, take three weeks, and will be the "cap stone" in a series of military moves in the North designed to bolster Canada's claim over the vast stretches of the uninhabited Arctic. Canada has launched a five-year plan to increase its military presence throughout its uninhabited Arctic territory, including satellite surveillance and far-reaching patrols of soldiers riding snowmobiles.

Although Narwhal is not specifically aimed at any one country in particular, there is no doubt about for whom the message is intended: that major superpower, which has always represented a threat to world peace -- Denmark. Yes, Canada's next major military adventure after Afghanistan and Haiti has to do with the latest chapter in an ongoing tussle between Canada and Denmark, both of whom lay claim to an island called Hans Island.

"flexing our muscles"

Hans Island is a three kilometer long stretch of rock and ice in the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. It's so small that it doesn't even appear on most maps. Yet it has become a focus of challenges to Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago, where islands and waterways long claimed as Canadian are facing challenges from foreign governments. One of them is from Denmark. Danish warships showed up off the coast of Hans Island in the summer of 2002. A group of sailors disembarked and reportedly hoisted the Danish flag, actions which Canada considered a violation of its sovereignty.

Although the Canadian military denies Narwhal has anything to do with Denmark's claim to Hans Island, it will nevertheless be the largest Canadian military exercise ever in the Arctic. "This is the first time we'll have a joint naval, air and land force operating this far north," explained Colonel Norris Pettis, commander of the Canadian Forces northern area. "And it's sending a message that this land is important to us [...] that we can put troops, and aircraft and ships, on the ground to respond to whatever we might be called upon to deal with. [...] "It's putting a military presence up here [...] flexing our muscles."

According to the Canadian military, Narwhal will send a message, first of all to the people of the North, secondly to all Canadians and, perhaps most importantly, to whatever other countries out there that Canada owns the area and is paying attention to what happens in the North. "If you're laying claim to a piece of land you have to use it -- you have to show that you can go there, stay there and control it," he said. "The Canadian Forces is a good way to help establish that."

Yet Canada's ability to hold the Arctic if ever it was seriously challenged in the area is questionable. The Canadian navy is limited in what it can do in the North since its front-line warships can't venture into even loosely packed ice in Arctic waters. Thus, the Canadian military doesn't even have ships that could go up there year-round.

While Narwhal is without doubt aimed at the Danes, it's not the only country Canada has a dispute with in the north. Presently, Canada has in total four such boundary disputes in the Arctic.

Public reaction to the Canadian government's policy of muscle-flexing in the Arctic has been overwhelmingly positive. In an on-line poll conducted at the end of March, which asked the question of whether the Canadian government should bother expressing sovereignty in the Arctic, three quarters of respondents said that they should. Only 7% said no while almost a fifth didn't care.

On the diplomatic front, meanwhile, Canada is considering an offer from the Danish ambassador to negotiate the future of Hans Island. Svend Roed Nielsen, the Danish government's top representative in Canada, said he is willing to start "negotiations". However, he added that his government is not backing down from its claim that the barren and uninhabited island is in Danish territory. Admitting that Danish warships made repeated "visits" to the barren rock in the Arctic, the Danes also note that they could not rule out further visits in the near future the tip

The tip of a large, more menacing iceberg

The same scene was also played out in Denmark, where Canada's top remaining diplomat (the ambassador was recalled because of a funding scandal in Canada) was called before the Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the dispute and, in particular, Ottawa's planned military exercise. It was made clear that Copenhagen would take issue if Canada landed soldiers on the island.

While all this may seem to be another example of petty nationalism, akin to the piece of rock in the Mediterranean that brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war, the confrontation between Canada and Denmark for a seemingly insignificant piece of rock in the Arctic is actually the tip of a large, more menacing iceberg.

As global warming makes the northwest passage through the Arctic navigable for longer stretches every year, with the possibility that the passage could be open year-round within 10-15 years, it has the potential to become a super-highway for shipping between Europe and east Asia. Thus, this small skirmish between Canada and Denmark could eventually snowball into a major confrontation between North America and the EU.

Precedents exist of international conflicts spurred on by economic interests in the polar regions. The Falklands War in the early 1980s was a case in point. The UK didn't go to war over the Falklands just because of a few thousand sheep. The Falklands is strategically placed, in that whoever lays claim to it also has a share in what goes on in Antarctica. Since many geologists estimate that there are huge oil reserves around Antarctica, a presence on the Falklands guarantees a share of the spoils if and when the Antarctic is exploited.

It's a shame to think that governments are resigned to the fate of climate change and are already looking to what the world will be like after the polar regions succumb to global warming. The future exploitation of the world's polar regions opens a pandora box of problems that will undoubtedly increase international tensions. Perhaps if more time and energy is devoted to minimising and ultimately reversing the effects of climate change, this pandora's box can then remain closed, and thus spare future generations of one more cause for worry.

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