Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sent a signal to Beijing that Ottawa will not relinquish its sovereignty over the portions of the Arctic lying within its territory.
Countries around the world are looking northward as the sea passage across the top of Canada becomes increasingly navigable and exploration for new energy and mineral sources suggests the Arctic could contain a wealth of untapped natural resources.
One of those countries is China, which has begun to take a hard look at the potential that lies under what was once a frozen ocean, especially the commercial and shipping possibilities, and has asked for special observer status in the Arctic Council.
On Friday, a reporter with the official Chinese news service who is accompanying the Prime Minister on his annual summer tour, asked him to clarify his position.
“It seems like there are some local media reports that the Arctic region belongs to the Arctic countries and it’s not the business of the rest of the world,” the Chinese reporter said. “What is your comment on this opinion and what role do you think the rest of the world can play in the Arctic region affairs?”
Mr. Harper responded by saying that vast areas of land and significant territorial waters within the Arctic are under the sovereignty of various countries, including Canada.
“The government of Canada, working with our partners and the people in this region, intend to assert our sovereignty in these regions,” said the Prime Minister.
“We also are working co-operatively with other nations through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to establish various extended claims through the Arctic continental shelf and that work continues peacefully.”
In terms of what happens outside sovereign territories, Canada will work with the Arctic Council and other organizations to encourage co-operative activity, peaceful transit and peaceful development, Mr. Harper said.
Of particular concern is jurisdiction over the regulatory regime. Canada wants to be able to regulate the ships that ply the Northwest Passage, for instance, to ensure that they will not create environmental problems or engage in inappropriate or illegal activities.
But China is especially keen on being able to use those waters to reach markets in Europe and has established a special relationship with Iceland, which could provide deep-sea ports when the passage becomes a reliable transport route as climate change melts the sea ice.