Future conflict

The controversy surrounding Hans Island has at times come close to resembling the scenario of a 'resource war' that some analysts have feared. So in the wake of the sharp exchanges that followed Bill Graham's visit in 2005, the Canadian government stoked up tension even more by dispatching the frigate, Fredericton, to the region while Denmark sent the ice cutter, Tulugaq, and threatened to land soldiers onto the island. 'This is a demonstration of Canada's will to exercise sovereignty over our own backyard', warned Commander Bob Blakely of the Royal Canadian Navy. 'The sea is a highway that's open to everyone. We will allow everybody passage as long as they ask for our consent and comply with our rules: use our resources wisely and don't pollute the fragile northern ecosystem.'33

There have been other occasions when the Canadian military has staged a number of exercises that other countries could easily regard as highly provocative. In April 2004, for example, a large group of regular troops and Inuit Rangers staged the longest and northernmost patrolling operation that Canada's armed forces had ever undertaken, travelling between Resolute Bay, which is the site of a research centre on Cornwallis Island, and Alert, an outpost located at the northern end of Ellesmere Island on the Lincoln Sea. Four months later came 'Narwhal 04', which took place on Baffin Island, 1,240 miles south of Hans Island. This 3-week exercise involved about 600 personnel as well as a number of aircraft, helicopters and one frigate, HMCS Montréal, and only served to aggravate international tensions even more.

Yet these exercises, like the verbal sparring between the capitals, present an essentially superficial image of tension and hostility. No government can afford to appear indifferent to the fate of any disputed region that might prove to be rich in natural resources, knowing that its perceived passivity is likely to merely encourage its international rivals to stake a claim while presenting its domestic adversaries with a golden opportunity to make stinging political criticism. If it indulges in a certain amount of posturing, a government instead reassures domestic audiences that it is prepared to do its utmost to claim these regions as its own, while also sending an unmistakable signal to rivals that such a matter is taken very seriously.

But this is a long way from using military force for much the same reasons that are also at play elsewhere in the region. For once again the potential rewards of using force are heavily outweighed by the certain risks. The Canadian government is well aware that some disputed regions may not even have any oil or natural gas deposits that are worth fighting for, and some investors, who are spending huge amounts of money combing the area for hidden reserves, admit that they are taking considerable commercial risks. 'Although the Arctic is a high potential, technology-intensive frontier area', as a spokesman for Imperial Oil cautions, it nonetheless represents both a 'high risk . . . opportunity to add to our resource base in the Beaufort Sea.'34

Even if, in the years ahead, Ottawa does become preoccupied with the need to achieve 'security of supply' at a time of diminishing oil output, it could easily acquire this without using military force at all. Its energy industry is currently collaborating closely with American counterparts to develop the ways in which natural gas is exploited and used. One such company is Unconventional Gas Resources, which has hired a number of engineers and geologists who are highly experienced in this very specialized field. The company's chief executive says his company has 'sophisticated investors' who are keen to emulate and apply methods that, over a number of years, have proved to be very successful in the United States.35

In as fully fledged a democracy as Canada, the government cannot readily ignore the concerns of public opinion. While the loud outcry provoked by American actions in the Northwest Passage certainly reveals the strength of national attachment to the region, this would not mean that the Canadian public would support the use of armed force to assert ownership over disputed territory. So if such action was undertaken to acquire natural resources, then it is most unlikely that it would enjoy any real popular support. In August 2008, a poll undertaken by the Canwest News Service suggested that Canadians have serious reservations about resource exploitation in the Arctic: 57 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that 'the Arctic ecosystem is too fragile for the extraction of natural resources that threatens to destroy the sustainability of the ecosystem, so we should leave it relatively untouched'. Only three in ten of those interviewed thought that Arctic sovereignty should be a 'major priority' for the government, whereas nearly two-thirds thought that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is very important.36

In the highly unlikely event that Russia, or any other country, uses force to stake its claim over disputed territory, most Canadians would instead be much more likely to support strong diplomacy with the close support of their allies in NATO. Pitched against a country as economically vulnerable as Russia, such a multilateral effort would be likely to prove far more persuasive than any easy reliance on force. And it is of course far less likely that any of the other countries bordering the Arctic Ocean - Norway, Denmark and the United States - would ever contemplate using military force at all, despite all the acts of showmanship in which they, like most countries, occasionally indulge. The political, economic and military ties between them are simply too strong to be disrupted by a single issue: the tensions between Denmark and Canada in 2004, for example, soon dissipated when the two NATO allies agreed to discuss the dispute at the UN. In the same spirit, for all the tension between them over the issue, the two countries are also working closely together to patrol Arctic coasts.

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