A new United States policy on the Arctic is a powerful challenge for Canadians to establish their control over the area before the Americans do it for them, says a leading academic.
"This is a very clear message to the world that the Americans are saying to the world, 'We're back,' when it comes to Arctic security," said Rob Huebert of the University of Calgary.
American President George W. Bush signed the new Arctic policy — the first such document in the U.S. since 1994 — on Friday and released it late Monday afternoon.
The 10-page paper, which comes only weeks after the European Union released a similar report, is forthright about U.S. intentions to protect its security and remain a major player in the Arctic without regard to Canadian or other international sensitivities.
"Freedom of the seas is a top national priority. The Northwest Passage is a strait used for international navigation," it said.
The U.S. will "project a sovereign United States maritime presence in the Arctic in support of essential United States interests."
The paper also thumbed its nose at proposals from the EU to regulate shipping, fishing and energy development in the Arctic through an international treaty, saying such a treaty "is not appropriate or necessary."
It did say the U.S. should sign on to a United Nations treaty to determine how the Arctic seabed will be divvied up. It also expressed support for international bodies such as the eight-member Arctic Council.
But it was cautious about any new bodies that might restrict its freedom of action in the region.
Still, it will take years before the U.S. builds up its Arctic presence.
Huebert said that gives Canada a window to move in and show the Americans that it can ensure a secure and well-regulated northern frontier.
"If we worked on having management instrumentation and regimes in place to actually provide security, by the time the Americans actually do anything about it, they've more or less come to rely on us," he said.
The document outlines American policy objectives for the Arctic, with security, governance and boundary disputes the first three topics. It also underlines the U.S. intent to develop the region's energy resources in an environmentally responsible way and strengthen ties between the eight Arctic nations: the U.S., Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark.
But it was clear about its interest in security.
"[The U.S.] is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests," it read.
The statement comes weeks after the EU released a document pointing toward its own Arctic policy. That document made an argument for a network of international bodies to regulate the development and use of the increasingly accessible Arctic.
A number of Canadian academics warned at the time that Canada risked losing control over the agenda for northern development, which would likely weaken its sovereignty over the region.
Huebert noted that while the EU and the U.S. have both released clear and concise documents outlining what their goals are in the Arctic, Canada hasn't.
"Just as the EU document was a wake-up call for us, here's one in which the Americans make it very clear where the differences are."
"Why do you want sovereignty unless you are going to use sovereignty for something? This is what the Americans are doing. They're saying this is what we want."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised a "northern strategy," but has never produced one, Huebert said.