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A map produced by Natural Resources Canada has pride of place in Arctic ambassador Anton Vasiliev's office, in the Stalinist-era skyscraper housing the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Centred on the geographic North Pole, the map shows how Russia and Canada dominate the Arctic region. Between them, the two largest countries on Earth account for three-quarters of the Arctic Ocean's coastline.

Both countries claim the channels between their Arctic islands and northern coasts as "internal waters" where foreign vessels require permission to enter. Their claims are opposed by the United States, which insists the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage are "international straits."

Russia and Canada have never opposed each other's claims, but neither have they explicitly supported each other. Instead, they have always relied on thick, hard sea ice to keep foreign vessels away.

Now, climate change is opening the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage to shipping. Two German cargo ships sailed the length of the Russian coast this year, while 17 vessels transited the Northwest Passage. Shipping increases the risk of oil spills, smuggling and an eventual challenge to one or both countries' legal claims.

In the circumstances, Russia and Canada should bolster their positions by recognizing each other's sovereignty claims.

At the same time, Russia is working hard to provide ice-breaking, navigational aids, ports of refuge and search and rescue in the Northern Sea Route. It recognizes both that shipping can bring economic benefits, and that offering services to foreign ships provides an incentive for them to request permission.

Canada, which is decades behind Russia in terms of northern infrastructure, needs to raise its game in the Northwest Passage, too.

Both countries have ratified the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention gives coastal states exclusive rights to the resources of the continental shelf up to 200 nautical miles from shore, and, depending on the shape and sediments of the seabed, sometimes farther.

Both have been collecting the scientific evidence necessary for extended claims. Thanks to the convention, and their lengthy coasts, both countries will secure uncontested control over vast expanses of seabed and potentially trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas.

However, it is possible that their claims will overlap along the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that bisects the Arctic Ocean.

Russian and Canadian diplomats have been discussing how to support each other's claims and resolve the potential overlap.

One obvious step is to share scientific data concerning the shape and sediments of the ocean floor. The common data set could be used to negotiate a maritime boundary, which would then constitute an agreed part of both countries' submissions to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the body that vets extended seabed claims.

Such an approach would increase the chances of the submissions being approved in a timely manner, and avoid the frictions that sometimes result when boundaries are left unresolved.

The benefits of the UN Convention explain why both countries oppose proposals for a new, comprehensive Arctic agreement modelled on the Antarctic Treaty. That said, several new, more tightly focused treaties are needed.

In 1982, Russian and Canadian diplomats teamed up to ensure that the UN Convention provides enhanced pollution prevention rights to coastal states in ice-covered waters within 200 miles of shore. It's time, now, to negotiate a protocol providing enhanced protection in the areas beyond.

It's also time to negotiate a treaty on search and rescue. With hundreds of cruise ships and thousands of commercial airliners traversing the Arctic each year, a major accident is inevitable. When it happens, hundreds of lives will depend on information and assets being deployed without regard for international boundaries or national pride.

For co-operation to work, politicians will have to resist the easy headlines offered by Arctic sovereignty. During the 2007 Russian election campaign, Artur Chilingarov led a mission to plant a Russian flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole. The Russian Foreign Minister later dismissed the exercise as a "publicity stunt" that had not been approved by the Kremlin.

In February, Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Russia of sending long-range bombers into Canadian airspace. In fact, the planes had remained well out to sea, with NORAD having been notified of the exercise in advance - in accordance with a long-standing agreement between Russia and the United States.

Pursuing co-operation does not entail throwing caution to the wind. In recent years, Russia has violated human rights in Chechnya, invaded Georgia and cut off gas supplies to Belarus and Ukraine in the depths of winter.

But co-operative engagement can bring mutual benefits, while sometimes helping to change the ways in which countries behave. For the same reasons that we trade with China, we should work with Russia - on obvious, pressing matters of common concern.

Michael Byers is the author of Who Owns the Arctic? He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and five federal departments.