When Canadians consider threats to this country's claims to Arctic sovereignty -- and they consider the issue more frequently than one might imagine -- they think of the usual suspects. There is Russia, the United States, Norway and Denmark, all them Arctic nations in their own right and all of them hungry for Arctic resources.
And as global warming melts the ice on the Arctic Ocean earlier each year, and as it delays freeze up a little longer each year, the usual suspects increasingly cast covetous eyes on the Northwest Passage which, with a little more warming, may soon become a viable sea route between Europe and Asia. Ottawa claims that the Northwest Passage is a Canadian waterway. The usual suspects disagree, arguing that it is an international channel open to vessels of all nations. Now, some less usual suspects have joined the debate and few of them agree with the Canadian position.
Meanwhile, a poll, commissioned by the Defence department in 2009 but just made public last week, indicates a sizeable majority of Canadians not only take Arctic sovereignty seriously, they perceive genuine threats to it from other countries and think that a greater military presence in the North is the way to avert those threats.
Canada's military leaders don't agree, and are probably right in dismissing the notion that there is a genuine military threat in the Arctic. This has led cynics to suggest that the Conservative government's emphasis on Arctic sovereignty is a ruse that plays on Canadian fears.
But cynics are seldom right. A military presence in the North does not need to be based on a military threat -- the threats to Canadian sovereignty are almost entirely diplomatic. A military presence and capability in the North, however, is the clearest statement a government can give that the North is Canada.
China would seem to be an unlikely challenger to Canadian Arctic sovereignty, but it is emerging as one. A paper recently released by the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute points out that Beijing is laying out a diplomatic strategy in which Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic would be acknowledged but that allow all other nations -- China, of course, included -- access to the Northwest Passage and to Arctic resources. It is called the "Svalbard" approach, in reference to the emasculated sovereignty that Norway exercises over those Arctic islands. It is a solution that in no way can be considered by Canada. The Arctic is Canadian; Beijing and other pretenders must be made to understand that.