Arctic ports for Canadian sea power – Part 1

Should their potential be fully embraced, ports will provide Canada with a significant source of new-found sea power in the Arctic

By Timothy Choi

Sea power is the ability to influence events at sea or from the sea, and consists of inputs (the sources of power) and outputs (what that power accomplishes). Traditionally, Canadian sea power inputs have been focused primarily around the seagoing vessels of the Royal Canadian Navy and Coast Guard, with little emphasis on another major physical element of sea power: ports.

This fact echoes the literature on sea power in general, which is also lacking in conceptualizing the roles ports play in the modern world. In the century since maritime strategy giants Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julien S. Corbett wrote their masterworks on the subject, the roles of ports have expanded beyond those authors’ early conceptualizations. Ports have acquired functions beyond serving as bases for naval forces and for enabling the transfer of goods between ship and land; they are also nodes for search and rescue as well as providing environmental protection. These new roles, should their potential be fully embraced, will provide Canada with a significant source of new-found sea power in the Arctic.

At the heart of this is the idea that maritime strategy should encompass activities beyond those strictly related to the accumulation of economic power and the application of coercive naval force to achieve political objectives. Although these two elements were staples of traditional thinkers like Mahan and Corbett, the methods and objectives of attaining maritime influence have changed significantly. In particular, the establishment of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has expanded maritime power into the legal realm, resulting in new sea power inputs and outputs. It is within the context of UNCLOS that, I argue, Canadians ports will have a dramatic ability to further Canadian political objectives in the High North.

One of the most contentious (certainly, the most headline- leading) issues in the Arctic is that of resource ownership between the five Arctic coastal states – Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, and Denmark/ Greenland. This issue concerns the UNCLOS clause that grants coastal states legal extractive rights to seabed resources (such as oil and gas) on the extended continental shelf outside of the country’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This right hinges upon two elements. Firstly, that the state can scientifically prove the area in question is a natural geological part of its own continental shelf and, secondly, that this extended portion does not overlap with a neighbouring state’s own extended continental shelf. Should there be any overlap, the states will have to come to either a mutually- negotiated settlement or submit the contestation to third- party or UN arbitration.

It is this second option where port infrastructure in the North can play a major role in supporting a Canadian claim to a contested extended continental shelf. Most Arctic scholars are of the view that this contestation will not be solved via military confrontation. Instead, the historically peaceful approach to Arctic cooperation will continue to play out regardless of conflicts between the parties in other parts of the world. Within this framework, a third party arbitrator will look at a number of factors in deciding which state has the better claim of authority.

The very limited number of cases thus far involving arbitration of continental shelf delimitation makes it difficult to foresee what factors will be examined. However, the uniquely harsh conditions of the Arctic may well see the consideration of factors such as the ability of the state to respond to maritime security emergencies in the area. Therefore, the output of sea power that needs to be developed is that of responsible custodianship in the form of robust emergency response and management, rather than coercive might. Accordingly, the relevant sea power input needs to reflect this desired capability.

This sea power input, then, is perhaps best manifest in the form of ports. As permanent coastal infrastructure intended to directly facilitate humanity’s use of the seas, ports have an incredibly diverse set of functions. With the Arctic sea ice melting and opening up to seaborne traffic, the arguably most important function would be search and rescue (SAR). The low population density and vast distances of the far north result in prohibitively long response times for the current SAR  régime relying upon southern- based helicopters and fixed- wing aircraft, which can take hours before reaching the distress area.

This is only exacerbated for regions beyond the Canadian mainland. Although many northern coastal settlements now participate in the volunteer- based Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA) program, they depend on small boats (some private) for SAR duties, which fall far short of what is needed in a major emergency such as a cruise ship holed by ice or in bad weather. It is, therefore, vital to treat SAR infrastructure much in the same way Mahan saw ports for naval power: enabling persistent forward presence by serving both as permanent forward bases for response assets and as stations for supporting temporary assets transiting from their southern bases to the operational area.

The environmental response would similarly benefit from robust port presence. Although the prospect of Arctic oil and gas extraction has recently come under doubt with the public announcement of Arctic drilling cancellations by some companies, the risk of maritime pollution remains. In the event of a major disaster requiring extensive SAR efforts, it is likely the incident will also cause environmental damage. Fuel and refuse spills from a holed vessel will require immediate response soon after the passengers and crew are safe. Although it seems unlikely a disaster on the scale of Deepwater Horizon will occur, the harsh environmental conditions of the Arctic will complicate any response. A cleanup that would otherwise be fairly straightforward in the south would be greatly slowed, making it even more crucial to have forward- stationed environmental response options available so as to minimize the time needed for mitigation efforts.

In my next post, I will explore what ports Canada could establish to strengthen its sea power in the Arctic in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

Timothy Choi is a doctoral student at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He specializes in historical and contemporary naval affairs, with a dissertation focus on the recent naval procurement programs of the Scandinavian countries within the context of climate change.

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