• <div class="header-image" style="background-image: url(/live/image/gid/4/3182_V7N6_Header.rev.1567542696.jpg);"/><div class="header-background-color"/>

The Northwest Passage: A Fear of Precedent?

August 04, 2019
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo represented the United States at the Arctic Council Meeting in May 2019 and drew international attention as he both refused to sign an agreement between the Arctic states and reprimanded Canada for its claims to an Arctic seaway. He claimed that “Russia is not the only nation making illegitimate claims” and that “the US has a long-contested feud with Canada over sovereign claims through the Northwest Passage.”[1]

Since the early 1900s, Canada has claimed the Northwest Passage (NWP), a sea route passing through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, as its own. Despite these historic assertions, Canada’s closest neighbour and ally, the United States, has consistently rejected its claim to the NWP. Instead, the United States asserts that this sea route is an international strait, allowing for free and unencumbered passage.[2] It is clear that Canada’s legal justification for their claim is growing weaker as climate change wreaks havoc on the Arctic, and melting sea ice has attracted strong global actors to the region, further threatening the United States.

A History of the Northwest Passage

Image: Map of Northern Canada and the Northwest Passage. Source: Britannica.Image: Map of Northern Canada and the Northwest Passage. Source: Britannica.

The NWP is a waterway in the Arctic that flows through various islands of Nunavut, a territory of Canada. Since the early 1900s, Canadian leaders have asserted that the passage is strictly Canadian internal waters, meaning they would have jurisdiction over what vessels can pass through it.[3] Since Canada’s initial claim over the passage, there have been a couple of controversial uses of the NWP by American vessels. In both 1969 and 1985, US vessels crossed the NWP, which was perceived by Canadians and their media to infringe upon their territorial sovereignty.[4] Despite the Canadian coast guard being aware of both of these vessels crossing the passage, to average Canadians, it was a threatening challenge to Canada’s claim. As such, the Canadian government responded by tightening safety and environmental requirements on shipping in the passage, creating straight baselines around the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, expanding Canada’s territorial sea from 3 to 12 nautical miles, and beginning talks with the United States concerning an Arctic agreement.[5] Eventually in 1988, Canada and the United States agreed to the Arctic Cooperation Agreement, which said that US icebreakers would always seek permission from Canada to navigate the NWP and, in return, Canada would always grant passage.[6] This effectively preserved Canada’s claim to the NWP while the United States remained staunch that it was international waters. In other words, this was an agree-to-disagree agreement.

Canada’s Weakening Legal Claim

Canada’s legal claim to the NWP primarily hinges on the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Article 234 stipulates that coastal states are within their rights to adopt non-discriminatory laws and regulations “for the prevention, reduction, and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas” within their exclusive economic zone when such areas are covered by ice for most of the year.[7] Canada has thus been able to impose safety and environmental regulations on vessels using the passage, seen as controversial by countries like the United States, who maintain that Canada holds no unilateral jurisdiction over the area.

Image: Graph charting Arctic sea ice fluctuations. Source: NASA.Image: Graph charting Arctic sea ice fluctuations. Source: NASA.

However, climate change has both reinvigorated this century-long debate and placed Canada’s justification of sovereignty in jeopardy. Arctic ice has shrunk by an average of 12.8% a decade since 1979, according to NASA.[8] Ice coverage in September 2018 was 42% lower than in 1980.[9] Each of these facts is putting Canada’s dependence on Article 234 in question, as it will not be long before the NWP is no longer covered in ice for most of the year. Given the weakening of Canada’s claim, it seems as if the friendly agreement between them and the United States over the passage is no longer be enough.

Incentives for Control of the Region

Climate change has not only resurfaced a century-long disagreement between Canada and the United States, but it has also turned the relatively secure northern frontier into a hotbed of potential exploitation and conflict. There are both economic and geopolitical incentives to categorize the NWP as an international strait. As mentioned, the NWP being unambiguously an international strait would allow for free passage by international vessels, which would bring two strong positive economic incentives. Firstly, free passage would increase access to the resource-rich Arctic. A Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal estimated that nearly ¼ of the earth’s undiscovered petroleum (80% of which is offshore) and 15 oil fields are situated on the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.[10] Secondly, consistent and reliable access to the NWP could shorten shipping routes between Asia and the US east coast by 5,000 miles.[11] This could reduce costs in transit fees, time, and, most importantly, fuel consumption. In fact, in 2013, a Danish bulk carrier saved roughly $200,000 and four days by using the NWP.[12] Given these incentives, between 1990 and 2015, traffic through the NWP tripled.[13]

These strong economic incentives have been attracting large global actors to the region, notably China and Russia, and these geostrategic incentives have threatened the United States even further as an Arctic state. In 2013, China became an observer state at the Atlantic Council in 2013 and announced its Polar Silk Road initiative in 2018 to develop shipping routes and infrastructure for international trade.[14] While China has not yet begun militarizing in the region, Russia, an Arctic state, has. Russia largely controls the Northern Sea Route (NSR), across from Canada, and since 2013, Russia has built or updated seven military based on land along the route, organizing advanced radar and missile defense systems.[15] The United States also contests Russia’s claim to the NSR. Notably, the Commandment of the US Coast Guard Admiral P. Zukunft has asserted that the NSR is an international strait and it is open for transit passage.[16] Evidently, the United States is unwilling to allow Russia to expand its territorial sovereignty in an increasingly strategic region. Russia’s increasing economic and military activity in the Arctic, so near to the Arctic state of Alaska, can only be seen as threatening, and thus the United States can allow neither Canada nor Russia to claim these key passages.

The Future of the NWP & Other Contested Straits

Given the United States’ hesitation to accept Russian and Canadian claims to the waterways near their shores, it is unmistakable that the United States fears setting a precedent around the world. In an official note from 1970, the United States claims that “If Canada had the right to claim and exercise exclusive pollution and resources jurisdiction on the high seas, other countries could assert the right to exercise jurisdiction for other purposes, some reasonable and some frivolous, but all equally invalid according to international law.”[17] If the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, acquiesces to Canada’s claims, it may create a domino effect by legitimizing sovereignty over other contested passages, such as the Strait of Hormuz, the South China Sea, and the Strait of Malacca.[18] Further, archipelagic states other than Canada, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, could use the Canada’s unilateral control over the NWP as justification to also unilaterally restrict international passage through their waters.[19]

Only time will tell whether the United States takes a more active approach to defend the Northwest Passage against unilateral Canadian sovereignty, but given the current strain on the Canada-US relationship, it is entirely possible. If anything’s for certain, it is that the revival of this historic dispute signals that the once strongest bilateral relationship is losing its stamina.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-us-warns-china-russia-against-aggression-in-the-arctic-region/

  [2] https://scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cilj/vol26/iss2/2/

  [3] Ibid.

  [4] Ibid.

  [5] Ibid.

   [6] Ibid.

  [7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00908320.2011.542104

  [8] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice/

  [9] Ibid.

  [10] https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2008/3049/

  [11] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/11_arctic_melt_ebinger_zambetakis.pdf

  [12] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/breakthrough/will-cold-dark-northwest-passage-see-more-ships/article16231502/

  [13] https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/arctic/article/view/67736

  [14] http://english.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm

  [15] https://www.ft.com/content/2fa82760-5c4a-11e9-939a-341f5ada9d40

  [16] https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/event/180509_Arctic_Future_Keynote_Address.pdf?Ql_c9wTP8uM1eATuTGaYbIwE7JthG9VS

  [17] https://books.google.com/books?id=XevQCwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

  [18] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00908320902864813

  [19] Ibid.


  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>