TORONTO — Canada announced plans Monday to increase its Arctic military presence in an effort to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage _ a potentially oil-rich region the United States claims is international territory.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said six to eight patrol ships will guard what he says are Canadian waters. A deep water port will also be built in a region the U.S. Geological Survey estimates has as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.
"Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this government intends to use it," Harper said. "It is no exaggeration to say that the need to assert our sovereignty and protect our territorial integrity in the North on our terms have never been more urgent."
U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins has criticized Harper's promise to defend the Arctic, claiming the Northwest Passage as "neutral waters." But Wilkins declined to comment on Monday, said U.S. Embassy spokesman James Foster.
"It's an international channel for passage," Foster said of the disputed waterway.
As global warming melts the passage _ which now is only navigable during a slim window in the summer _ the waters are exposing unexplored resources such as oil, fishing stocks and minerals, and becoming an attractive shipping route. Commercial ships can shave off some 2,480 miles from Europe to Asia compared with current routes through the Panama Canal.
The disputed route runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. It gained historical fame among European explorers who longed to find the shorter route to Asia, but found it rendered inhospitable by ice and weather.
The search for the passage frustrated explorers for centuries, beginning with John Cabot's voyage in 1497. Eventually it became clear that a passage did exist, but was too far north for practical use. Cabot died in 1498 while trying to find it and the shortcut eluded other famous explorers including Henry Hudson and Francis Drake.
British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and 128 hand-picked officers and men perished mysteriously in 1845 on their expedition. Franklin's disappearance prompted one of history's largest rescue searches from 1848 to 1859, which resulted in the discovery of a passage.
No sea crossing was successful until Roald Amundsen of Norway, who took three seasons to complete his trip from 1903-1906.
Canadians have long claimed the waters. But their government has generally turned a blind eye to the United States, which has sent naval vessels and submarines through what it considers an international strait.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the ice cap is warming faster than the rest of the planet and ice is receding, partly due to greenhouse gases.
"The ongoing discovery of the north's resource riches coupled with the potential impact of climate change has made the region a growing area of interest and concern," Harper said.
Professor Anthony D'Amato, who teaches international law at Northwestern University, said Canada's attempt to secure future economic gains as the area thaws and becomes more navigable was unlikely to change the international community's view of sovereignty in the area.
"For Canada to now come in and take advantage of the ice break-up is just unacceptable," said D'Amato. "Just because there's a change in the weather doesn't mean there's a change in the law."
Canada also wants to assert its claim over Hans Island, which is at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.
The half-square-mile rock, just one-seventh the size of New York's Central Park, is wedged between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Danish-ruled Greenland, and for more than 20 years has been a subject of unusually bitter exchanges between the two NATO allies.
In 1984, Denmark's minister for Greenland affairs, Tom Hoeyem, caused a stir when he flew in on a chartered helicopter, raised a Danish flag on the island, buried a bottle of brandy at the base of the flagpole and left a note saying: "Welcome to the Danish island."
The dispute flared again two years ago when former Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham set foot on the rock while Canadian troops hoisted the Maple Leaf flag.
Denmark sent a letter of protest to Ottawa, while Canadians and Danes took out competing Google ads, each proclaiming sovereignty over the rock 680 miles south of the North Pole.
Some Canadians even called for a boycott of Danish pastries.
Harper did not name the location of the new port but said it will serve as a naval operating base and for commercial purposes.
Patrol ships with steel-reinforced hulls will be able to go through ice a foot thick and will be armed and equipped with helicopter landing pads to accommodate new helicopters being purchased by the Canadian military.
Harper said the government opted for a more versatile fleet than heavy icebreakers because there is little need to patrol the area during the winter when ice prohibits shipping through the route.