contributor perspectives

The Melting Arctic Heats Up the Question of Who Governs the Northwest Passage

Philip Leech-Ngo
Board of Contributors
9 MINS READAug 7, 2019 | 11:00 GMT
A project manager for the Arctic Research Foundation on April 9, 2015, walks past snowmobiles used by Canadian troops deployed to the territory of Nunavut to demonstrate Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.
(PAUL WATSON/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A project manager for the Arctic Research Foundation walks past snowmobiles used by Canadian troops employed to the territory of Nunavut. Canada uses polar patrols to demonstrate its sovereignty in the Arctic.

Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently seemed to ratchet up an old dispute between the United States and Canada over sovereignty and the Northwest Passage.
  • The United States rejects Canada's claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, holding instead that the passage is an international waterway that should not be subject to Canadian jurisdiction.
  • In 1988, the United States and Canada agreed to find a pragmatic solution to governing the Northwest Passage. But 30 years ago, the far-north shipping lane was largely an academic matter; not so today.
  • Ultimately, U.S. concerns about Russian and Chinese ambitions in the Arctic will prove greater than worries about Canadian sovereignty claims, and Washington and Ottawa will maintain the useful compromise of the 1980s to protect their intertwined interests.

The existing U.S.-Canadian compromise agreement over Arctic sovereignty serves both countries' best geopolitical interests. Thus, in a rapidly changing climate, it is likely that recent U.S. attacks on Canadian claims of sovereignty in the far north are intended to remind Ottawa that the status quo depends on Washington's goodwill.

Speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland in May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo surprised many of his fellow delegates with an apparently unprompted attack on Canada's claims to sovereignty over the Northwest Passage (NWP), a maritime route joining the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans along the northern coast of North America.

While at first glance Pompeo's words are in line with a general commitment by the United States to freedom of navigation all over the world, the bluntness of his statement seemed to represent an unprovoked reopening of a decades-old dispute between two close allies. It is unlikely the United States seriously wants to relitigate the status quo. Rather, because the existing arrangement — based on a mutual understanding between friendly neighbors rather than on international law — allows both Canada and the United States to meet their primary geopolitical concerns, Pompeo's assertion should be best understood as a means of reminding Ottawa that it depends on U.S. consent to maintain the current compromise.

The Northwest Passage

While Inuit peoples have inhabited and navigated the territories of northern Canada for centuries, modern Western attempts to navigate through the Canadian archipelago began in the mid-19th century. These were spurred by European ambitions to find a trading route to Asia that would be shorter than the existing two options at the time: traversing the Suez Canal (after it opened in 1869) or circumnavigating the southern tip of Chile. (The Panama Canal did not open until 1914.)

Following several failed efforts to sail across the Arctic Ocean — including the disastrous Franklin Expedition of 1845 and the McClure Expedition of 1850, which fully charted the NWP — Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally navigated a route between 1903 and 1906 that ran from Baffin Bay, between Greenland and what is now Nunavut, to Alaska and then down the West Coast to San Francisco. While several ships have managed to replicate Amundsen's voyage in decades since, the high level of risk and expense involved have prevented the NWP from being considered a serious alternative to more traditional trade routes, at least until recently.

As a result, for most of the past century, the issue of who governs the NWP was relegated to a somewhat abstract dispute between two of the world's closest allies. In 1946 the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Lester Pearson, asserted that the NWP falls within legitimate Canadian claims to sovereignty over territory all the way to the North Pole. However, Ottawa's official position remained hazy until an American tanker, the SS Manhattan, entered the NWP without Canadian permission in 1969. Fearing that it might lose control of the route, Ottawa clarified its position that the NWP is an internal Canadian waterway and tightened a range of regulations. While the SS Manhattan and its parent company would comply with Canadian demands during its subsequent voyage in 1970, the U.S. government rejected Canada's claims over the NWP.

As the dispute continued in the early 1980s, it would be impacted by the conclusion of the third round of negotiations over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) in 1982. The agreement — which came into force in 1994, but is still not ratified by the United States — outlined some significant clarifications on what defines internal, territorial and archipelagic waters. It also codified relatively recently established norms such as the link between states' claims to exclusive economic zones and the extension of the continental shelf on which they rest.

However, while UNCLOS III established a common legal language over maritime sovereignty, it did little to settle the dispute. Canada continued to legislate over the NWP throughout the 1980s and began highlighting Article 243 of UNCLOS III — which ostensibly grants Arctic-bordering nations broad regulatory powers — as the legal basis for doing so. Meanwhile, most other states, including the United States, would contend that the NWP represents an international waterway and should not be subject to Canadian jurisdiction.

The Arctic Cooperation Agreement allowed both the United States and Canada to save face while effectively ensuring that North America's continental perimeter remained secure.

However, after another diplomatic incident in 1985 — when a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker traversed the NWP without Canadian permission (though it did submit to a Canadian inspection) — the governments of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the Arctic Cooperation Agreement in early 1988. The purpose of this agreement was to sideline any legal complications and instead find a pragmatic solution to governing the NWP. Thus, the U.S. government accepted Canadian demands that U.S. icebreakers would require permission from the Canadian government before entering the NWP, albeit without formally altering the U.S. stance on the legal status of the waters.

This compromise agreement, therefore, allowed both sides to save face while effectively ensuring that North America's continental perimeter remained secure. Moreover, though tensions with the United States in the Arctic briefly remerged as an issue of concern for Ottawa in 2005, when U.S. Navy submarines entered the NWP without Canadian permission, the compromise held into the new century even as Canada began reasserting its claims through polar patrols that combine both military assets with local and indigenous volunteers.

Changing Climates

Perhaps the major reason why the NWP has never become a serious international flashpoint is that, until recently, the promise of its utility as a shipping lane had far outweighed the practical reality. While a northern route joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would cut shipping distances by thousands of kilometers, equating to potentially millions of dollars' worth of savings for transit companies, layers of thick Arctic ice blocking the way have made such a route impractical at best.

However, the effects of global climate change — which are more extreme in the Arctic than just about anywhere else on the planet — have changed these conditions. Indeed, according to scientific data gathered since the 1970s, annual average temperatures have increased at twice the rate in the far north as the rest of the world. This has already led to changes in ocean circulation patterns, animal and human lifestyles, and significant melting of the permafrost. Should current trends persist, by 2030 it is likely that there will be a summer without ice in the Arctic. But even before then, ice thickness in the NWP has diminished significantly, meaning that it may be much more accessible to ships with modern ice-breaking technology.

Of course, scientific consensus holds that the impact of a melting Arctic is likely to be devastating to local communities, the indigenous Inuit way of life and eventually catastrophic on a planetary scale. But even in the shadow of this widely accepted reality, the NWP has become the site of a new geopolitical game that includes states far beyond the traditional U.S.-Canada axis.

Resources and Geopolitics

The retreating sea ice not only makes the possibility of using the NWP for shipping more likely, but it also opens potential opportunities to exploit a myriad of natural resources, including hydrocarbons and other commodities. The United States, like any state, would much prefer direct access to these resources for its own industries, unencumbered by complications like sovereignty claims by other countries, even if such claims come from a friend like Canada.

However, the United States and Canada are not the only states that see the NWP as strategically interesting. Russia has a vested interest in avoiding the setting of any new precedents in the NWP lest they become a basis for challenging the Russian dominance over the Northeast Passage (a similar Arctic Ocean route that runs north of the Eurasian continent). The Europeans tend to take an internationalist view of the NWP, which is unsurprising given the potential reduction in import costs from Asia and the opportunities for European-based shipping conglomerates such as Maersk (which has already sent a trial shipment through the NWP in August 2018).

While the United States may be interested, in the short term, in jostling with Canadian sovereignty claims, its apparent long-term geopolitical interests remain intertwined with Canada's.

However, by far the most important new actor in the region is China. Despite being nearly 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, Beijing has set its sights on the far north. Indeed, though China has developed its interest in the Arctic throughout the early years of this century, its level of interest has peaked recently. In January 2018, China adopted the designation of a "near-Arctic state," demonstrating that it sees itself as a major stakeholder. Moreover, a government white paper published at the same time highlights plans for China to develop a "polar Silk Road" through developing the Arctic shipping routes and constructing an array of infrastructure.

Beijing's ambitions have not escaped Washington's notice. As Pompeo identified in his Finland speech in May, "Chinese activity … continues to concern us in the Arctic." This then highlights the United States' second primary concern: the exclusion of access to untrusted foreign actors. Indeed, for decades, the Canadian and U.S. governments have agreed on the basic principle that their mutual defense is of common concern. Thus, while the United States may be interested, in the short term, in jostling with Canadian sovereignty claims, perhaps to strengthen its hand in any potential dispute over resources, its apparent long-term geopolitical interests — particularly the defense of the North American continent — remain intertwined with Ottawa's.

As U.S. President John Kennedy told the Canadian Parliament in 1961, "Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those who nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder." In the Arctic that "natural" and "necessary" relationship effectively manifested itself through a useful compromise in the 1988 agreement, allowing both sides to claim a different interpretation of sovereignty, while in practice working together to ensure their mutual defense. Even as the Arctic ice melts, it is most likely that this compromise will endure.

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