President Trump plans to send ships into our Northwest Passage without Canada’s permission. Why he would want to provoke Canada -America’s closest ally and trading partner- is a mystery. If he succeeds, not only will he strain relations with Canada further but invite unintended consequences: If the Northwest Passage is international water as he claims, the same waterway is open to his perceived enemies as well.
Despite our differing opinions regarding the Northwest Passage, the U.S. and Canada came to an amicable solution in the past. The Americans maintain that the Northwest Passage is an international strait and while Canada argues it is internal waters. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney agreed to disagree: the U.S. would ask Canada’s permission to send ships through the Northwest Passage and Canada would automatically agree. In this simple agreement between friends, neither concedes their position.
That friendship has been strained lately on a number of fronts by an egotistic U.S. president. He is preparing for a “freedom of navigation operation” through the Northwest Passage without asking us.
Belligerence is a defining characteristic of Trump. Professor Robert Huebert of the University of Calgary has a blunt assessment:
“However, due to Mr. Trump’s pathological need to win, the Americans are set to disregard this  solution and win the dispute (Globe and Mail, May 20, 2019).”
What Trump fails to realize is that if the U.S. gets its way and declares the Northwest Passage to be international waters, it also invites Russia and China into the Arctic. What’s good for one is good for all.
“Given that Russia is actively militarizing and China may soon be taking similar action, the United States’ move to attack Canada, its most important ally, while meeting this threat makes no sense. If the Americans are really concerned about the rise of Russian military strength in the Arctic, they need Canada to help meet the threat,” says Professor Huebert.
President Trump seems unaware of how much the U.S. relies on cooperation with Canada in the defense of North America. Bilateral defense agreements go back to 1940. Established in 1958, NORAD provides warning of threats by air or sea. Traditionally, the Deputy Commander of NORAD has been a senior Canadian Armed Forces officer. In 2008, a joint agreement provided for the military from one nation to aid the other during an emergency such as a natural disaster.
If the U.S. wants to counter the Russian threat to the Arctic, they will need Canada’s cooperation.
Meanwhile, it’s in Canada’s best interests to cooperate with China in the Arctic; even when cooperation is not mutual. Despite China’s single-minded determination to punish Canada for arresting a Huawei executive in Vancouver, Canada is siding with China over the U.S. in China’s goal to expand its influence in the Arctic.
Former parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, Andrew Leslie, said in China:
“Let’s focus on the positive that comes through international co-operation, and not so much on the sabre-rattling.”
At least China isn’t planning an invasion of Canada.
If Trump sends ships to our Northwest Passage and they fail to navigate the ice-clogged and uncharted waters, it will support Canada’s position that these waters are unique and are not a functioning international strait.