Feb. 24 (Montreal Gazette) - In a further sign of the ongoing transformation of the melting Arctic into a new strategic base for military and commercial activity, U.S. lawmakers are pushing for the construction of a deepwater sea port in Alaska near the western entrance to the disputed Northwest Passage.
"Now is the time to be investing in our infrastructure and laying the groundwork," Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan member of the U.S. House of Representatives, said in introducing legislation partnered with a proposed Senate bill for a new northern port.
"As other countries develop interests in this region, we need to ensure the protection of the U.S.'s interests and make moves now to lay our claim."
The Canadian government has already announced plans to construct a deepwater port near the waterway's eastern gate, at Nanisivik on northern Baffin Island.
But a leading expert in polar geopolitics, University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert, suspects the U.S. "could quickly overtake us, because they'll have more funding and more capabilities" to get the Arctic docking facility built.
"It'll be like the Olympics," predicts Huebert. "Yes, we got the jump on them in looking at it ahead of time. . . . But then they'll pass by us. We won't own the podium, so to speak."
Last fall, the U.S. navy issued a report calling for greater investments in the Arctic to protect U.S. national security and guarantee American economic interests in the region.
"This opening of the Arctic may lead to increased resource development, research, tourism, and could reshape the global transportation system. These developments offer opportunities for growth, but also are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources," the report stated.
"While the United States has stable relationships with other Arctic nations, the changing environment and competition for resources may contribute to increasing tension, or, conversely, provide opportunities for co-operative solutions."
The U.S. push for a deepwater Arctic port comes at a when commercial and diplomatic interest in the region is rapidly growing. An Alaska-based company, prompted by retreating sea ice, announced plans last month to run a 16,000-kilometre-long, Tokyo-to-London undersea cable through the Northwest Passage.
Meanwhile, global oil companies are jockeying for control of potentially petroleum-rich tracts of Arctic Ocean seabed — including a disputed section of the Beaufort Sea, north of the Yukon-Alaska border, that is claimed by both Canada and the U.S.
Shipping through Canada's Northwest Passage and along Russia's Northern Sea Route is expected to rise steadily in the coming years, along with Arctic tourism, fishing and mining.
But as the five Arctic Ocean coastal states — Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark — press forward with infrastructure projects to prepare for the expected polar business boom, there are signs of both tension and co-operation between northern nations and stakeholders.
Last week, the Canadian government opened the door to negotiations with the U.S. over the Beaufort Sea territorial dispute. Yet no resolution is in sight for the thornier question of whether Canada's view of the Northwest Passage as "internal waters" can be reconciled with the American position that the sea route is an "international strait."
And while Canada has announced plans to host a five-nation Arctic summit in late March to discuss the need for multilateral thinking on environmental protection and economic development, the move has rankled three excluded Arctic Council countries — Sweden, Finland and Iceland — and prompted loud objections from northern aboriginal leaders who are demanding a seat at the conference table.