Washington, 19 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Countries with large, sparsely populated regions are facing ever greater challenges to their state sovereignty in these areas, a development that is forcing their governments to devote ever more resources to areas they had previously ignored.
One such country is Canada. During the Cold War, Ottawa devoted few resources to policing the 3.4 million square kilometers of its Arctic north, an area one-third the size of the United States but having only 70,000 residents. Because of geography and political tensions, few challenged Canadian control of the area's resources, who were protected by only 200 full-time soldiers and 1,400 part-time policemen.
But a combination of climatic, political, and economic changes has put the question of Canadian control of the region back on the country's agenda and forced Ottawa to consider how it can defend such an enormous but strategically important region in the future.
Global warming has made it easier for outsiders to come to a region still associated in most people's minds with permanent cold. Cruise ships now visit the region, something unheard of a decade ago, and on-the-ground tourism is increasing rapidly as well.
At the same time, the end of Cold War tensions has simultaneously called into question Ottawa's earlier assumption that hostilities between Washington and Moscow would keep most people out of the Canadian north precisely because the region was on the frontline of that geopolitical struggle.
And economic development of the region's estimated $160 billion in natural resources has taken off. Most of this is entirely welcome, but recently groups fronting from the Russian mafia have arrived in the region. And Canadian officials fear that other kinds of illegal raids on the region's economy may be in the officing.
Col. Pierre Leblanc, the commander of Canada's armed forces in the regional capital of Yellowknife, said last week that he is worried that the governments of countries now suffering from drought may soon send tankers to Arctic Canada to steal water and that Canada lacks the resources to prevent this from happening.
Such actions, he said, "would be relatively easy to accomplish since pumping in water doesn't require any special technology." Not only could such pumping operations wreak havoc on the region's fragile ecology, he said, they could call into question Canadian control as well because Ottawa lacks the resources to enforce its own legislation.
Few in Ottawa are as concerned as LeBlanc. He acknowledges that some government officials see him "as a boat-rocker, someone saying more resources were needed when there weren't enough as it was."
But both his arguments and the broader changes in the region have prompted the Canadian government to create a new working group to consider how to respond, a body that LeBlanc said left him "fairly confident" that Canada's Arctic policy "will start moving in the right direction pretty soon."
The working group includes officials from the military, the environmental and foreign ministries, the coast guard, customs authorities, and both the regular and secret police. And it meets once ever six months.
So far its sessions have been without much fanfare, but Marc Whittingham, the director of policy development at the defense ministry, noted that its meetings are having an effect, leaving ever more people to conclude that "we need to look at the likely strategic situation in the Arctic" over the next decade or more.
Canada is far from the only country which is confronted by these new challenges to effective control of large, but relatively unpopulated regions. The Russian Federation and Australia are among those which potentially face similar challenges to their sovereign rights over such territories.
But as it has so often been on Arctic questions, Canada may serve as the bellwether of governmental responses to such increased risks. And the work of its interdepartmental working group may prove to be not only a wake-up call for other governments but a model of how they may respond as well.