An agreement on a decades-old maritime boundary dispute with Denmark could be a sign that Canada is serious about its plan to resolve competing claims in the north, researchers suggest.
Negotiators have a tentative plan to address ownership of two small patches of water totalling less than 225 square kilometres in the Lincoln Sea, an area of the Arctic Ocean north of Ellesmere Island and Greenland. There is still, however, no resolution over Hans Island, as well as several boundary disputes with the United States in the Arctic and further south.
“What we’re seeing here is the Harper government signalling a willingness to resolve disputes with other Arctic countries, and that is very significant,” said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia who holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law.
As a shrinking polar ice cap opens up a wealth of economic opportunities in the Arctic, Dr. Byers and other researchers say there is new urgency for the federal government to firmly draw Canada’s boundaries.
The Arctic contains more than one-fifth of the world’s undiscovered energy resources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. While no one owns the area surrounding the North Pole, Canada is among several countries that have been working to map the floor of the Arctic Ocean to determine how much of the seabed they can lay claim to in the near future.
“We know that the north is going to become much, much busier, and with that increased activity we know that foreign interests are already showing a greater appreciation,” said Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal countries are entitled to economic control over the waters that stretch as far as 200 nautical miles from their shores. If a country can prove its continental shelf extends even further, it may be granted control of a greater expanse.
Canada’s claim is due by the end of next year and, depending on how far it stretches, could spark feuds with other northern countries. Both Canada and Russia have said they believe the mineral and oil-rich Lomonosov Ridge, which runs beneath the ocean and close to the geographic North Pole, is a natural extension of their continental shelves.
“There’s a real possibility that we will have a 200-nautical-mile overlap with the Russians,” Dr. Huebert said. Canada has said it would deal with any overlap through international dispute regulation mechanisms, he said, “But we’ve never had a boundary dispute with the Russians, so that would be a new sort of foreign policy issue that we’re facing.”
Who: Canada vs. Denmark.
What: A small, uninhabited island in the Kennedy Channel, which runs between Ellesmere Island and Greenland.
How big: The island is 1.3 square kilometres.
Why: In 1973, Canada and Denmark negotiated a treaty that divided the maritime boundary between the two countries using the principle of equidistance. But negotiators could not agree on what to do with Hans Island, which lay directly in the path of the boundary line they were drawing. To avoid slowing the process down, they drew the line up to either side of the island’s shores, putting the land mass itself aside for future negotiations.
After several years of tensions that saw competing flag-planting expeditions and heightened rhetoric, the two countries signed a joint statement in 2005 committing to continued negotiations and promising to inform one another in advance of any planned activities related to the island. The island has no direct economic value, but neither country wants to give up its claim, largely out of fear that doing so could jeopardize other Arctic claims, Dr. Huebert said.
“Everyone says how insignificant it is,” he said. “But I always come back to the point: if it was so simple, and so easy, why haven’t we settled it?”
Canada calls this dispute “well-managed,” and meets regularly with Denmark to discuss ways forward. “We are talking very constructively to each other,” Danish ambassador Erik Vilstrup Lorenzen said in a recent interview.
He said there are several possibilities for a “mutually agreeable” solution, but declined to describe the options the two countries are considering. Reports earlier this year that Canada and Denmark would split the island down the middle were tempered by the ambassador, who said that was one of a number of options under consideration.
The Beaufort Sea
Who: Canada vs. U.S.
What: A triangle-shaped section of the Arctic Ocean north of the Alaska/Yukon border.