The Northwest Passage is one of just two possible shipping routes through the Arctic. “Possible” is generous: The icy landscape is treacherous for all but the burliest ships. Because the passage is of limited use, countries have rarely clashed over its ownership.
But the climate crisis may change all that. As its ice thins and winters warm, the Northwest Passage will become a major shortcut for commercial shipping, particularly to and from Asia. The newly-valuable route is bound to incite tension between nations—and a recent meeting of Arctic countries suggests it already has.
Canada has long maintained a territorial claim to the Northwest passage. In May, at a meeting of the Arctic Council, United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo called that claim “illegitimate,” invoking a dispute that’s been left well alone for nearly three decades. The swipe was unexpected, but not without motive: Pompeo referred to the Arctic’s melting sea ice as opening “new opportunities for trade.”
Since 1988, the United States and Canada—Arctic neighbors and partners in NATO and NORAD—have operated under the comfortable compromise of the Arctic Cooperation Agreement. Canada has always taken the view that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal, because they say they’re within the waters of the nearly 20,000 islands of the Canadian archipelago. Their claim is supported by thousands of years of Inuit use of the sea ice. “The Northwest Passage is part of Inuit Nunangat, our Arctic homeland,” Monica Ell-Kanayuk, the president of Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada, said in a news release. Sea ice bridges the land and the islands of the archipelago for most of the year.
The US, on the other hand, regards the waters as an “international strait,” where the freedom to navigate through them is guaranteed to anyone. “We view Canada’s claim that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal waters of Canada as inconsistent with international law,” a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email to Quartz.
Under the 1988 treaty, the US doesn’t officially recognize the Northwest Passage as Canada’s, but it agrees to ask for permission to pass through it. Canada, in turn, agrees in advance to always grant permission.
When it comes to the Arctic, “the US-Canada situation has been perfectly cooperative since then,” says Michael Byers, a research chair at the University of British Columbia and an expert on Arctic politics. Canada’s coast guard even runs a yearly resupply mission for the Thule US Air Force base in Greenland.
But climate change upsets the balance. The 1988 treaty only concerns US Coast Guard icebreakers, because they were once the only vessels that could traverse the harsh 1,000 nautical miles of the passage. Today, non-governmental vessels are starting to show up in the Northwest Passage. “Were it not for climate change, that agreement would still be sufficient,” Byers says. “Climate change is now opening the possibility of other types of vessels, including from other countries.”
Those ships may soon include US naval vessels. Earlier this year, US Navy secretary Richard Spencer said the Navy plans to send vessels through the Arctic, and specifically through the Northwest Passage. “Freedom of navigation should be plied up there,” he said. If the US chooses not to request permission to pass, that would mark a clear provocation.
It could also be dangerous, according to Rebecca Pincus, an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the US Naval War College. In January 2019, she wrote in the journal of the Naval Institute that trying to send naval vessels through either major Arctic shipping passage (the other passage, known as the Northern Sea Route, is claimed by Russia) would risk a “national embarrassment.” Severe weather can come on suddenly, maritime maps are low on detail, and ports of refuge are far away. If a naval vessel found itself in need of a bailout, the US Coast Guard only has two icebreakers up to the task—neither of which is fully reliable. The US vessels could be forced to seek rescue from Canada or Russia.
Ships aren’t yet flooding the passage; their numbers have just risen from virtually zero to a few ships here and there. So far they’ve all been complying with Canadian law, and asking for permission to pass, according to Byers. And right now, the US is all in favor: The US encourages all US-flagged vessels to cooperate with the Canadian Coast Guard.
But the US State Department spokesperson added that the US also doesn’t see “eye to eye” with Canada’s regulation around shipping in Arctic waters, “which we believe are inconsistent with the Law of the Sea.”
As shipping ramps up, tensions will only increase. At the same meeting of the Arctic Council in May, typically reserved for peaceful collaboration, Pompeo warned Russia and China that the US wouldn’t tolerate any “aggressive” moves from either of them. As Byers explains, though, reopening the dispute with Canada could complicate relations with those countries. “You don’t want to push the dispute with Canada, because it would open it up to unrestricted passage by China and Russia,” Byers says. “You can’t help but wonder if someone is stuck in the ’80s. Why would you aggravate a dispute with Canada and with Russia and China?”
The climate crisis may have precipitated the debate over Arctic waters, but rhetoric from the United States risks tipping it over the edge.