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Opinion

Canada’s emerging freedom of navigation conundrum

By Adam P. MacDonald       

Canada has a number of Arctic maritime disputes, most notably with the United States over the status of the Northwest Passage and whether they are internal waters conferring full sovereignty as Ottawa asserts or are an international strait sanctioning transit rights for foreign vessels as Washington argues.

Satellite image of the Northwest Passage, Jan. 29, 2016. Further complicating the matter is that Canada’s Arctic waters claims, specifically the drawing of strait baselines around the Arctic Archipelago designating them as internal waters, rely on similar legal rationales to those used by Russia with respect to the Northern Sea Route and China regarding the Qiongzhou Strait (between Hainan Island and the Chinese mainland). Satellite image courtesy Government of Canada

Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) are regularly conducted by the United States Navy globally, challenging ‘excessive maritime claims’ of coastal states which they accuse of illegally constraining Freedom of Navigation (FON) for commercial and/or military vessels. Those conducted in the South China Sea have growing strategic salience, given concerns China is attempting to carve away this maritime area under its exclusive control, altering the regional geopolitical landscape and setting a precedence for others to do the same. The United Kingdom and France have also begun conducting FONOPs with other allied navies augmenting their presence operations in these waters as well. The possibility of an ask by Washington to participate and/or more assertive demands by Beijing for foreign navies to leave these waters—which Canadian warships are increasingly frequenting–warrants clarification by Ottawa on Canada’s position on FONOPs. Their silence on this matter, however, is not simply a function of regional considerations, but also most likely due to their implications in waters closer to home in the Arctic.

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