Canada just assumed the chair of the Arctic Council. Predictably, the Harper government grabbed the gavel and announced that its priority will be to open up the vast territory for more business.
More business is coming to the Arctic, like it or not, courtesy of global warming, an issue that leaves the Harper government largely indifferent. Global warming is altering the geography of the Arctic, making it easier for shipping, drilling, mining and other activities. It’s also increasing the chances of more military activity.
Another kind of Canadian government would take this opportunity as Arctic Council chair to lead a diplomatic effort to demilitarize the region, to make it a northern Antarctica where, by international treaty, military activities are banned. Of course, the Arctic Council alone couldn’t bring about demilitarization since it has no such power, but it could become an important place to put the issue on the international agenda.
Canada should borrow a slogan from someone Americans love – Ronald Reagan, whose disarmament lexicon was “trust, but verify.” That’s exactly what Canada should strive for in the Arctic.
There would be no problem persuading the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Finns and Icelanders to consider demilitarizing the Arctic. They have no interest in projecting military force in that region, or anywhere else, and have a long and honourable tradition of constructive engagement in world affairs.
The stickier challenge would be to convince the Russians and the Americans, the other two permanent members of the Arctic Council. And to convince China, because it’s developing a blue-water navy and has just been granted observer status at the Arctic Council.
The Chinese consider themselves a burgeoning world power. The Arctic is part of their world vision, as a place for economic activity and eventual military presence.
The Arctic is evidently far from China’s territory and can hardly be defined as a “core interest,” to use the latest iteration from the Chinese government of what it considers a vital national interest. But the Chinese have major Arctic research projects at home, have sent scientists to northern Norway and have been knocking at the Arctic Council’s door for observer status.
So where does Canada’s geopolitical interest lie, apart from the business of business in the Arctic that consumes the current government?
The Arctic can be divided, roughly speaking, into two kinds of territories. The first is the land mass and the territorial waters of each Arctic country. The second is the vast area in the extreme far north that lies beyond the territorial waters of every country. Ice is receding rapidly in both kinds of waters, as even a cursory glance at the map reveals.
Countries can patrol and monitor within their own territorial waters, and there isn’t much other countries can do about it even if they tried. But the Far North is another matter: It belongs to the whole world, in the sense that no single country owns it.
As the ice recedes, more of this area will be blue water. It has been widely assumed for years that Great Power navies (read the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia) sent nuclear-powered submarines under the ice cap. Canada had no such capacity, having decided in the Mulroney years to scrap any idea of building nuclear-powered subs.
Why would the Americans be at least marginally interested in demilitarization? In a word: money.
The U.S. defence budget is stretched. It’s being hacksawed by spending cuts that will extend over many years. At a recent dinner, a senior U.S. military commander, asked about demilitarization of the Arctic, said that any part of the world where the U.S. does not deploy its military would be worth examining.
Russia’s instinct these days is to protect and project. If all the other Arctic countries proposed a demilitarized area, with appropriate verification, would Russia axiomatically be against the idea? Perhaps, but it would be worth finding out.
The Arctic is opening for business. Canada should lead an effort to close it for the military.