Sunday, August 7, 2011

Canada and Denmark at War!

What!? Two of the worlds most peace-loving countries fighting. Can this be true? Well, in a few years this might very well happen. A Falkland War look alike scenario is at this very moment developing.

What is the cause of the hurt feelings between these countries?

The US Geological Survey estimate that the Arctic region can have up to 22% of the worlds total oil and gas resources. So far these resources has been out of reach due to the harsh environment. But according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climat Changes the Global Warming will affect the Artcic region resulting in less ice. This will change the geopolitical strategic value of the Arctic region. The surrounding countries (Canada, USA, Russia, Iceland, Denmark and Norway) of course want to have their share of the money.

Less ice will also change the possible transit routes between Europe, USA and Asia. The Norteast and the Northwest passage will be possible to use. Ships will no longer need to use the southern routes through the Panama canal, the Suez canal or south of he Cape of Good hope. Russian ships have already started to use the Norteast passage, but will other countries be allowed to pass free of charge? In Canada there has been proposals to change the name of the Northwest passage to the Canadian Nortwest passage to indicate who owns this transit line.

There has already been many incidents in this region between fishermen from mainly the UK and Iceland. In the 1970:s there was the famous Cod Wars and today they are fighting about Mackerel. If fish can result in fighting between civilized countries, what then can oil and gas?

But what about the conflict between Denmark and Canada?

The Northern Research Forum has issued a report analyzing the countries that have legal claims in the Arctic region.

The priority areas of Canada’s Northern Strategy are: 1) Exercising our Arctic sovereignty; 2) Promoting social and economic development; 3) Protecting the North’s environmental heritage; and 4) Improving and devolving northern governance (Government of Canada 2009 and 2010).

The joint draft strategy of Denmark and Greenland “contains a series of objectives, which is twofold: 1) Supporting and strengthening Greenland's development towards increased autonomy; and 2) Maintaining the Commonwealth's position as a major player in the Arctic” (Namminersornerullutik Oqartussat, Udenrigsministeriet, 2008)

Denmark is a small country in the Scandinavian region. But what many people forget is that Denmark has large territories (Greenland and the Faroe Islands) in the Arctic region.

In order to protect the Danish interests in the Arctic region, Denmark has military presence on Greenland. All units are led by the Island Command Greenland.

The Thule Airbase was for many years used by US fighters and bombers during he cold war as an forward operating base in the defence against the Soviet Union. This since the shortest route between these countries was crossing the North Pole. The airbase is still used today, but the nuclear bombers are no more.

The Royal Danish Navy has a number of ocean going vessels to patrol the Arctic region. Most interesting is the three Iver Huitfeldt class corvettes. Together with the two Absalon command and support ships and ice hardened patrol ships of Knud Rasmussen class, Denmark has a very good capability to operate in the Arctic region all around the year in all weather conditions.

The Danish army has the Sirius Sledge Patrol (Slædepatruljen Sirius) a dog sledge unit that patrols the border of Greenland. This unit is considered to be one of the best trained special forces units in the world.

The piece of land that Denmark and Canada is arguing about is the small "Hans Ö" island located in the Nares Strait between Danish Greenland and Canadian Ellesmere Island.

Visa större karta

This island is small and seemingly worthless, but the owner of the island also controls the Nares Strait and the shortest route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that is not part of Canadian territory. All other routes through the Northwest passage go well inside the Canadian territories.

The island was discovered by Hans Hendrikssen (a danish native from Greenland) that took part in the american polar expedition of 1871-73 led by Charles Francis Halls.

In 1984 the danish minister of Greenland, Tom Höyem, flew with a helicopter to Hans Ö and raised the Danish flag. He also put up a sign "Welcome to the danish island". In 1988 the danish patrol ship HMDS Tulugaq visited the island and raised a new flag, In 1995 soldiers from Thule flew to the island and raised another flag.

June 13, 2005 Canadian soldiers raised the Canadian flag and built a inushuk. A week later the Canadian minister of defence, Stephen Harper, visited the island. Stephen Harper has stated that if needed Canada will patrol the area with armed ice breakers to protect "their territorial integrity". He has repeated his message after becoming Prime Minister.

"With immense natural wealth and the growing potential for new global trade routes, the strategic importance of Canada's Arctic is heightened as never before," Harper told reporters and military personnel aboard the frigate.

Harper repeated his oft-quoted line about Arctic sovereignty — "use it or lose it" — saying a national government's foremost responsibility is to protect the integrity of its country's borders.

The Canadian navy is however not very impressed by the idea, since here is a lack of budget and he ships in themselves are not of much use for the navy.

The Tories initially started out in 2006 insisting that three heavily armed icebreakers be constructed, but the estimated cost of $1 billion per ship and the fact they could be used only in the Arctic forced a retreat.

They eventually settled on a proposal for six to eight patrol ships capable of operating in first-year ice. That was quietly changed last year to six ships, according to documents and interviews with officials.

I don´t believe it will go as far as a full scale war between Canada and Denmark. But the Falklands War clearly shows that interest in regions of strategic value and where there might be oil or gas can lead to war. There is however a clear risk of a low level conflict with incidents involving Canadian and Danish patrol ships in the area, much like during the Cod War of the 1970:s. I don´t think it will go as far as the conflict between Greece and Turkey about the small islands in the Aegean Sea.

Read the Canadian American Strategic Review Part 1 and Part 2.

The strategic importance of he Arctic region will of course affect even Sweden. Sweden has for long had interests in this area with a lot of polar expeditions. Most famous is maybe the fatal André polar expedition of 1897, but for many years Swedish ice breakers has been used to explore the North Pole. Sweden has also signed a one-sided declaration of solidarity stating that Sweden will support he other Nordic countries if needed. There has been discussions with Iceland and Norway to perform air defence missions over the North Sea. Swedish fighter squadrons regularly perform air combat exercises cross the Norwegian and Finnish border and Swedish troops yearly train in Norway during exercises such as "Cold Challenge", "Cold Response" and "Joint Winter".

Read this FOI report about oil and gas in the Arctic region (in Swedish, but English summary) and listen to this "Vetandets Värld" radio documentary about the Northwest passage (in Swedish).

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