Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has rejected Canada’s claims to the Northwest Passage as “illegitimate”, in a high-profile foreign policy speech that prompted frustration and surprise among experts and government officials.
Delegates from Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US – had gathered in Finland to discuss balancing climate change with resource development in the region.
“No one denies Russia has significant Arctic interests,” Pompeo told delegates of the Arctic Council on Monday. “We recognize that Russia is not the only nation making illegitimate claims: the US has a long contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage.”
The Arctic route linking the Atlantic and the Pacific offers a potential shortcut between Europe and China. Although the passage remains ice-bound for much of the year, it has become increasingly usable because of global warming and the retreat of Arctic sea ice.
While the United States has long maintained that the route, often blocked by sea ice, lies in international waters, Canada has argued the waters pass through sovereign territory.
Foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland dismissed Pompeo’s remarks after a meeting with her American counterpart.
“Canada is very clear about the Northwest Passage being Canadian. There is both a very strong and geographic connection with Canada,” Freeland told reporters.
Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and author of International Law and the Arctic, said Pompeo’s remarks were consistent with US policy. But he said the “belligerent” speech contained numerous,“factual mistakes and logical inconsistencies”.
Byers said: “He talked about Chinese investments in infrastructure in the Canadian Arctic, [but] there are none. That was a straight-out factual misstatement.”
Pompeo also came in for criticism for enthusing about the “abundance” of resources available for extracting in the Arctic as climate change causing ice to retreat. “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade, that can potentially slashing the time it takes for ships to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days,” he said.
The council meeting ended without a joint final statement from council members, after the US delegation balked at the inclusion of the phrase “climate change”.It marked the first time the Arctic Council had failed to produce a declaration since 1996.
“I actually celebrate the fact that the seven other countries stood up to the Trump administration” said Byers. “We’re talking about about six close allies of the United States – four of them Nato partners – drawing a line in the snow saying you cannot have a declaration without acknowledging the crisis of climate change.”