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Canada PM's Arctic stand 'frosty rhetoric'
by Staff Writers
Ottawa (AFP) May 13, 2011


Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tough talk on defending Canada's Arctic is apparently more bluster or "frosty rhetoric" than substantive, according to US cables leaked Friday.

Harper's government has routinely touted Canadian sovereignty over the vast, desolate north as a "very high priority" and has publicly called for increased militarization of the Arctic to protect Canada's disputed claims in the region.

The prime minister himself has announced plans for a sensor net, more navy patrols and airport improvements, and a military training camp in the far north.

The country also has stepped up its military alertness along its northern frontier, according to Defense Minister Peter MacKay, largely in response to Russian "testing" its boundaries with military flights skirting the border, a practice not seen since the Cold War.

However, cables released by website WikiLeaks indicate that US diplomats in Ottawa viewed Harper's aggressive statements as mere posturing and a partisan strategy to win voter support.

In private talks with US ambassador David Jacobson, say the cables, Harper was "more pragmatic."

Harper's election promises on the Arctic have been "seldom implemented," they noted. "The armed ice-breakers and ocean sensors that candidate Harper promised in the 2006 election have been forgotten."

And an account of a January 2010 meeting between Harper and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the prime minister as rebuffing a proposed NATO deployment in the Arctic.

"According to Prime Minister Harper, Canada has a good working relationship with Russia with respect to the Arctic, and a NATO presence could backfire by exacerbating tensions," said the cable.

A poll taken in January found a majority of Canadians rank the Arctic as their top foreign policy priority and support a strengthened military presence in the north to protect against international threats.

To underscore his government's commitment to the Arctic, Harper has visited the region every summer since taking office in 2006 and has held occasional cabinet meetings in the territorial capitals.

Harper's office declined to comment on the cables, but said in an email to AFP: "Under the leadership of our prime minister, our government has delivered on our commitments to defend Canadian sovereignty in the north.

"We are investing in the tools to protect and promote our northern sovereignty and we will continue to defend Canadian interests," it said.

According to the US Geological Survey, the Arctic seabed holds up to 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 percent of the world's untapped gas resources.

Arctic nations are locked in a tight race to gather evidence to support their overlapping claims as research suggests global warming could leave the region ice free by 2030, opening up navigation and access for oil rigs to the sea floor.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that any coastal state can claim undersea territory 200 nautical miles from their shoreline and exploit the natural resources within that zone.

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