Canada to increase Arctic military presence despite U.S. objections

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 says 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.

U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins has criticized Harper's promise to defend the Arctic, claiming the Northwest Passage as 'neutral waters.'

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 the current routes through the Panama Canal.

The disputed route runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. 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.

Harper said the Arctic is central to the Canadian identity.

'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.

'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,' he added.