The right way and wrong way to assert arctic sovereignty

Last Friday, Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay went to great lengths to convince members of the media that Canadian fighter pilots had thwarted an incursion on Canadian airspace by Russian bombers on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Ottawa. While the Minister refrained from accusing the Russians, he qualified Canada’s response as a strong assertion of Canadian sovereignty. Mr. MacKay made his case to the media during a press conference to discuss Canada and U.S. military relations with U.S. General Gene Renuart, commander of North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD). Interestingly, Gen. Renuart characterized the Russian activities slightly differently in his comments:

“The Russians have conducted themselves professionally; they have maintained compliance with the international rules of airspace sovereignty and have not entered the internal airspace of either of the countries.”

The Russians were quick to respond, referring to Minister MacKay’s comments as a ‘farce’. A spokesperson for the Russian military clarified that this was a routine maneuver and added that Canada had been notified of the flight path:

“The countries adjacent to the flight path had been notified and the planes did not violate the airspace of other countries. In this light the statements by the Canadian Defense Ministry provoke astonishment and can only be called a farce,”

National Post columnist Don Martin explained the Minister’s inflamatory posturing as “a Ramboesque muscle-flexing publicity winner.” While this may have been a publicity winner, if the Minister is serious about asserting Canada’s sovereignty in the North, he should read Michael Byers’ recent article in the Globe and Mail outlining one of the very real threats to Canada’s arctic sovereignty: foreign submarine traffic through the northwest passage. Byers cites a Los Angeles Times article indicating that two US nuclear-powered attack submarines would be participating in ‘Ice Exercise 2009′ in the arctic ocean near Alaska. As one of the submarines is based in Virginia, it is all but certain that it would pass through the northwest passage on route to Alaska. As Byers explains in the following excerpt, Canada’s claim to the northwest passage is vulnerable if we fail to protest such encroachment on our waters:

“The key criterion for an international strait is usage by international shipping without the consent of the coastal state. Ottawa’s failure to protest against the submarine transits could constitute evidence that – in the corridors of international diplomacy, where it really matters – Canada has already surrendered its claim.”

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