Canada issues warning to US over Arctic passage

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The Independent US

Canada's Prime Minister- elect has issued a blunt "hands off" warning to the US over territorial rights in the Arctic - increasingly coveted now that global warming threatens to open up new waterways in the once solidly frozen far north.

Two days after his Conservative party ended 13 years of Liberal rule, Stephen Harper declared he would keep his campaign promises to step up Canada's military presence in the region, despite opposition from the US and various European countries.

The often edgy relations between Washington and Ottawa had been expected to improve under Mr Harper. But that was anything but the case on Thursday as the Prime Minister-elect used his first post-election press conference to take direct aim at David Wilkins, the US ambassador to Canada, who last week described the North-west Passage as "neutral waters".

Mr Harper was not asked by reporters about the ambassador's comment, but he refused to let it pass unchallenged.

"The United States defends its sovereignty, the Canadian government will defend our sovereignty," he said. "It is the Canadian government we get our mandate from, not the ambassador of the United States."

The assumption here is that Canada's new leader was sending a message that he would be no pushover for Washington.

With global warming steadily melting the passage, the period during which it is navigable is growing year by year, offering access to untapped fish stocks, and a shipping route that shortens the journey between Europe and Asia by almost 2,500 miles.

But climate change also provides new opportunities for smugglers and traffickers. For that reason, Canada's new leadership says, it must assert its sovereignty over the remote area.

Control of the Arctic sea lanes has long been a contentious issue, with the US in particular sending submarines through waters claimed by Canada. During the Cold War - and perhaps even now - British, Russian and French submarines also travelled under the ice. But without the resources to enforce its sovereignty, Ottawa generally turned a blind eye.

That attitude may now be changing. During the campaign, Mr Harper said he would send three armed Canadian Navy icebreakers to the North-west Passage, and build a $1.7bn (£995m) deep-water port in Iqaluit in south-east Baffin Island. The new government also plans a network of underwater "listening posts" to monitor sea traffic.

The US government insists that Mr Wilkins was merely restating a long-standing policy. "We don't recognise Canada's claims ... most other countries do not recognise their claims," he reportedly said.