The Northwest Passage: Present Status and Emerging Questions

(Photo by M. Lanteigne)

The Northwest Passage, traditionally defined as the Arctic waters between Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait in the east to the Bering Strait in the west, is emerging as a major issue for both Canadian and greater Arctic affairs as a result of eroding ice and the possibility of the waterway being used in the near future as an international shipping route. Unlike the Northern Sea Route (NSR) north of Siberia, the NWP is dominated by dozens of large and small islands, (including Baffin, Ellesmere and Victoria), presenting several potential routes which may open up to expanded maritime shipping, but also more varied navigational hazards. Nonetheless, the route is being viewed by Arctic, and increasingly non-Arctic, actors as an emerging option for faster shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and as a result the long-dormant political and legal issues in the region are slowly but steadily being pushed back to the forefront of Canadian Arctic politics.

The core issue surrounding the NWP is that the exact legal definition of the waterway remains very much open to interpretation, with Ottawa viewing the waterways which comprise the Northwest Passage, (now commonly referred to by Ottawa as the ‘Canadian Northwest Passage’), as internal waters, and therefore under Canadian jurisdiction. However, the United States has maintained for decades that the Passage is international waters, a stance unlikely to be changed by the Trump administration.

These differences have led to occasional diplomatic incidents between Ottawa and Washington, including in 1969 when the American oil tanker Manhattan made the crossing, escorted by the Canadian icebreaker John A. MacDonald and two American icebreakers, and in 1985 when an American Coast Guard icebreaking vessel, USCGC Polar Sea, used the NWP to travel from Thule, Greenland to the Chukchi Sea off Alaska without requesting permission from the Canadian government. Both cases touched off heated debates in Canada about the country’s Arctic interests and sovereignty, issues which became more pressing after it became clear that with ongoing warming trends, the waterways could be opened up to further transits.

An Agreement on Arctic Cooperation [pdf] was struck between Washington and Ottawa in January 1988 which affirmed that the United States would seek Canadian consent for American icebreaker vessels to operate in the passage. However, through the use of a ‘non-prejudice clause’, the document skirted the question of Canadian sovereignty and whether the US was maintaining its view of the passage as international rather than a Canadian internal waterway, leaving that issue still unresolved. Since that time, there had been a tacit ‘agree to disagree’ policy between the two countries, with the idea that the matter was not particularly urgent given that the region was traditionally seen as unsuitable for any sort of regularised maritime transit due to climate and ice conditions. The events of the past decade or so, however, have prompted a re-evaluation of that viewpoint.

Arctic Portal Shipping maps
Map by Arctic Portal, (See

In addition to the changing ice conditions in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, political pressures are also prompting the reopening of the NWP question. However, the United States has so far not been the major ‘push factor’, since it remains uncertain whether the Arctic will be a major area of concern for US foreign policy under the Trump administration. Case in point, the recently released American National Security Strategy [pdf] only mentioned the Arctic once, en passant, as an example of international institution-building, and there was no mention at all of climate change in the region or elsewhere as a strategic concern. Save for pushing for the controversial opening of the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) for future oil and gas exploration, there have been few signs of any sort of deepening of US Arctic policies under Trump.

China, however, has identified the Arctic as a growing economic concern as a result of the region’s energy and resource potential, as well as a emerging boon for Chinese shipping interests. In April 2016, Beijing announced it was seeking to make future use of the Northwest Passage for its expanding maritime shipping in order to reduce time and fuel costs for its cargo vessels traveling from China to the North American East Coast and the greater Atlantic Ocean.

As the Arctic Ocean becomes increasingly ice-free in the summer months, China has previously expressed interest in making expanded use of Arctic transit routes for faster shipping, but that statement was the first time that the Northwest Passage had been specifically cited as a priority for Beijing. Since the government of President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, Beijing has been seeking to expand it trade in many parts of the world, including via the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative which would entail the opening of both land and sea routes between China and key global markets.

This year, the Chinese and Russian governments expressed joint support for expanded cooperation initiatives to create a ‘Silk Road on the Ice’ [In Chinese] (bingshang silu 冰上丝路) via various port and transportation projects. The end of 2017 has seen an uptick in enthusiasm in some quarters for the potential of larger scale Arctic shipping, including within a report by the Russian news agency TASS suggesting that the NSR might service up to 105 million tonnes of cargo after 2030.

China’s Arctic shipping interests has so far been concentrated on the Northern Sea Route, but the possibility is growing that a Chinese cargo vessel might seek to transit the NWP sooner rather than later. Also in April 2016, China’s Maritime Safety Administration (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Haishiju 中华人民共和国海事局) published an Arctic navigation guide [In Chinese] which detailed the conditions and geography of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and its potential use by Chinese vessels; the agency had previous published a similar guide to the NSR.

In making these announcements, Beijing sought to sidestep the question of the NWP’s legal status, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry stating shortly after the release of the shipping guide that ‘China noted that Canada considers this route as internal waters, while some countries believe it was open for international navigation’, and that ‘the Chinese side will make appropriate decisions by taking into account various factors.’

Although no official timetable has been announced for Chinese vessels to begin using the NWP, considering the growing number of Chinese cargo vessels which have operated in the NSR in 2017, it is likely that plans for a NWP transit are being put together for the near term. China’s sole operational icebreaker, the Xuelong (Snow Dragon), did transit the Northwest Passage in the late summer of 2017, (after contacting the Canadian authorities), for the first time. However, the possibility of future cargo shipping by China, and potentially other countries, via the NWP throws open not only the question of sovereignty and jurisdiction but also safety and monitoring concerns.

Unlike the NSR, which has seen a flurry of Russian activity of late, including new potential ports and railways, military facilities and the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia which formally began operations this month with Chinese support, infrastructure in the Canadian north remains comparatively underdeveloped. This year did see the opening of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway which will greatly improve overland transit between the Canadian Arctic and other parts of the country.

Pearson Building, Global Affairs Canada, Ottawa (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

However, other issues such as the isolation of the northern community of Churchill, Manitoba after the town’s single rail line was cut during flooding in mid-2017, illustrate the problems still facing far northern infrastructure in Canada, (this week, goods, including Christmas toys, reached Churchill successfully via a new ice road). The greater issue of monitoring civilian vessels when cargo shipping and tourism, (such as cruise liners), in the NWP becomes more commonplace, as well as protecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic, will likely factor considerably into Ottawa’s plans for an Arctic Policy Framework, detailing Canadian priorities in the region to 2030, to be released next year.

[The editor wishes to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance with the writing of this post.]