Those who think the Cold War is a memento of history ought to travel to Ottawa these days to have that popular misconception re-examined. There has been a mild paranoia in Canada since August, when two Russian mini-submarines planted a rust-proof titanium metal national flag on a seabed 4,300 metres down the North Pole in Arctic territory, which is also claimed by Canada as its own. The Conservative prime minister in Ottawa, Stephen Harper, whose instincts are to follow George W. Bush and his band of neo-conservatives in the United States of America to the end of the world — if only Harper had a steam-roller majority in his parliament to do so — immediately hot-footed it to the inhospitable Arctic on a rare three-day trip and declared: “Canada’s new government understands that the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is use it or lose it...Canada has taken its sovereignty too lightly for too long. This government has put a big emphasis on reinforcing and strengthening our sovereignty in the Arctic.”
Harper went to a small Inuit community 600 km south of the Pole to announce that an army training base would be set up there to train Canadian troops and acclimatize them to the harsh weather conditions in order to station them at Resolute Bay. In addition, an existing port at a disused mine in the area at Nanisivik would be renovated to host eight new Polar Class 5 Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships of the Canadian navy. These ships have already been ordered by Harper’s government and will cost approximately Canadian $21.5 billion. Peter MacKay, then Canada’s foreign minister, now its defence minister, ratcheted up the rhetoric when he said: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘we are claiming this territory’.”
At present, the North Pole is not considered as belonging to any country and is administered in principle by the International Seabed Authority, an autonomous organization established under the United Nations convention on the law of the seas. But Russia has consistently argued before UN bodies that North Pole waters are an extension of its maritime territory. Ironically, it is global warming and the melting of Arctic ice that made it possible for the Russians to undertake the flag-planting expedition. The mini-submarines got to the North Pole in spite of melting ice only because they were carried there by a Russian a nuclear-powered ice-breaker accompanied by a research vessel.
To understand the importance that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, paid to the enterprise, it is necessary to briefly refer to the risk that was involved in it. The mini-submarines could have been trapped under the Arctic ice broken by the ice-breaker if they had failed to find their way back to the surface through holes in the ice they navigated through. It was no surprise then that Russian scientific experts portrayed the achievement before their people as something akin to planting a flag on the moon. Izvestia wrote that “for the first time in the history of mankind, people have reached the floor of the Arctic Ocean under the North Pole”.
At the heart of the quest for Arctic supremacy is the demand for energy and riches. A study by the US Geological Survey contends that the Arctic region may have as much as 25 per cent of the world’s oil and gas that is as yet undiscovered. Global warming and melting ice could also open up the legendary Northeast Passage, drastically cutting the time required for travel from Asia to the Western hemisphere by saving at least 4,000 km and making the Panama Canal obsolete. Climate change experts say that the route could become viable to commercial traffic in eight years at the current pace of melting ice.
Russia followed up the submarine expedition with military exercises over the North Pole and test launches of cruise missiles. Not to be left behind, Denmark, which is part of Bush’s farcical “coalition of the willing” in Iraq and another claimant for the North Pole, launched its own Arctic expedition. The Danes got hold of an ice-breaker owned by Sweden, put together a group of 40 scientists — only 10 of whom were Danes — and set out to gather evidence to prove their ownership of the North Pole. They insist that a 1,920 km-long underwater structure known as Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of Greenland, which is part of Denmark. Greenland was awarded to the Danes three-quarters of a century ago by an international court rejecting competing claims by Norway. Not that Norway will not have any claims to the Arctic now that its potential wealth has made it desirable.
Actually, Canada and Denmark have historically quarrelled over the North Pole, most recently two years ago. In 2005, the then Canadian defence minister, Bill Graham, flew to Hans Island at the entrance of the Northwest Passage, and took along Canadian troops to hoist their national flag, but the dispute did not go beyond Copenhagen sending a letter of protest to Ottawa. Earlier, in 1984, a maverick Danish minister hopped on a helicopter, flew to Hans Island, planted a Danish flag there and placed a bottle of cognac at the foot of the flagpole with a greeting “Welcome to the Danish island”, in case anyone stumbled on it. But unlike the dispute now involving Russia, such a quarrel did not trigger a Cold War. When the Russians are involved, Canada’s response is to order patrol ships worth tens of billions of dollars, but with Denmark, there were only calls that went out to Canadians to boycott Danish pastries.
Actually, to get a feel of the extent to which the Arctic sovereignty issue has got the Canadians all worked up, one need not go to the politically sensitive capital city of Ottawa. In Windsor, Ontario, on the other side of Detroit, a city with a population of 216,000, try picking up the local newspaper, The Windsor Star. On a day when Ontario’s provincial election results were declared, an election in which Windsor had a lot at stake, one would expect much of the newspaper — or at least its key sections — to deal with the local elections. But no, the main opinion piece in The Windsor Star that day was all about how “czar” Vladimir Putin happened to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russian president and was now reclaiming Russia’s place in the world.
Russia’s Arctic expedition has become such an emotive issue in Canada today that there are demands for changing the country’s coat of arms to include a “third sea”. Canada’s current coat of arms, in use for 86 years with a minor change in 1994, refers to its two coasts, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Graham, who flew to Hans Island two years ago, had demanded a change when he was leader of the opposition, but nothing came of it. Such inaction may be about to change.
And the chill winds from a developing Cold War will become even more chill if the US enters the dispute as it is prone to do on anything that involves Russia. For the present, the US’s hands are tied in the matter to some extent, because the US senate has not ratified the UNCLOS. There are moves now to hurriedly ratify the convention so that Washington can marshal the resources necessary to fight a new Cold War that is erupting in a very unexpected part of the world.