- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 28, 2005

MONTREAL — A barren desert island in the High Arctic populated only by seals and the occasional polar bear is at the center of a diplomatic tiff between otherwise friendly Canada and Denmark after Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham quietly set foot on the disputed land last week.

Hans Island, a round frozen outcrop in the middle of the Kennedy Channel that separates Greenland from Canada’s Ellesmere Island, is claimed by both Arctic nations.

The Danish Foreign Ministry issued an official note of protest to Canada’s ambassador in Copenhagen on Monday after learning of Mr. Graham’s decision to personally “invade” Hans Island and reinforce Canada’s claim over it.

“Denmark still maintains its position that this island is Danish territory,” said Poul Erik Dam Kristensen, Denmark’s ambassador to Canada.

“We regret that this visit was taken without prior notification. And we reiterate our suggestion that the two parties sit down and resume consultations and resolve the issue on the basis of international law.”

Mr. Kristensen said the last time Canada and Denmark held consultations about their boundary in the Arctic was in 1971. The two parties could not come to a consensus on Hans Island and “agreed to disagree” on the issue.

The island is so small that it doesn’t show on most maps, but researchers say the Arctic is warming so quickly that the rich natural resources of the area will be open for exploitation within a few decades.

Canada also thinks that if it doesn’t draw a line in the snow over Hans Island, its credibility and position in a far more important boundary dispute with the United States over the Beaufort Sea will be undermined.

Denmark fears that relations with Greenland, its giant overseas territory, will be undermined if it fails to protect what many Greenlanders consider rightfully theirs.

So the two NATO allies have been engaged in a tit-for-tat policy of visiting the island to reinforce their claims to it.

In 2002 and again in 2003, Denmark sent ice-reinforced frigates, the HDMS Vaedderen and HDMS Triton, to reinforce its claim to Hans Island.

On both occasions, Danish marines raised the kingdom’s flag and left plaques declaring ownership of the tiny island, which looks like an overturned turtle.

Canada responded with diplomatic notes of protest and last year made a show of force by staging its largest-ever military exercises in the Arctic, called Operation Narwhal 2004.

Rob Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, said Mr. Graham’s visit was a clear signal that the Canadian government intends to follow through on its promises to improve Arctic sovereignty as stated in the newly released foreign and defense policy statement.

“I think it’s great,” said Mr. Huebert. “I just never expected to see an actual minister go the island. I think it’s a very powerful statement.”

Mr. Huebert said he suspects that Denmark will retaliate by sending either one of its ice-reinforced frigates or its minister responsible for Greenland to the island.

Yet, officials from both countries maintain that despite this saber-rattling, relations between the two countries are “very warm and friendly.”

Canadian foreign affairs officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dismissed suggestions that Canada and Denmark could come to blows over the rocky island as “silly.”

But the Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading daily, joked Tuesday that if the gloves were to come off in this Arctic brawl, Canada would certainly come out on top. Denmark is one the few countries whose military is even smaller than that of Canada.

The spat also moved to the Internet, with competing ads on the site of the popular search engine Google.

Toronto author Rick Broadhead told Reuters news agency he bought the ad after spotting a Danish ad that said “Does Hans sound Canadian? Danish name, Danish island.”

Canadian officials too tried to inject some humor in the dispute.

“Notwithstanding the disputed area, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry is allowing its cafeteria to sell Danish pastries as a goodwill gesture towards the Danish government and people,” Reuters quoted ministry spokesman Reynald Doiron as saying.

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