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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's heating up at the North Pole. Last week, a Russian icebreaker sent a small submarine two and half miles below the surface of the pole and planted the Russian flag on the ocean floor. The leader of the expedition declared - the Arctic is Russian and will always remain Russian.

But this week, Canada's minister for foreign affairs, Peter MacKay, likened the show of colors to a 15th-century territorial aggression. He said it's clear it's our country; it's our property, our water. The Arctic is Canadian.

Now, five nations claim slices of the seabed beneath the North Pole - Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway and Denmark. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to the Arctic in a long planned trip this week to assert Canadian sovereignty over the waters of the Northwest Passage, a thousand miles from the North Pole but also disputed territory.

Michael Byers is Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. He joins us from Vancouver. Thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. MICHAEL BYERS (Canada Research Chair, Global Politics and International Law, University of British Columbia): Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Are these all irreconcilable differences?

Dr. BYERS: Oh, not at all. The first thing to realize is the - that the Arctic is an absolutely enormous place. There's lots of Arctic Ocean seabed to go around between the five countries that have Arctic coastlines. The Russian expedition was actually spending most of its time doing seismic surveys of the sediments underlying the Arctic Ocean in an effort to determine whether or not that area of seabed is an extension of Russia's own continental shelf.

So a lot of political posturing, but underneath all of these is serious legal and scientific process that was established more than 25 years ago when more than a hundred countries drew up the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

SIMON: Now, as I understand it, there are two separate territorial issues, right? The North Pole and the Northwest Passage?

Dr. BYERS: Oh, that's absolutely right. And the Russians have absolutely no interest in the Northwest Passage. The difference of opinion concerning the Northwest Passage is one between Canada and the United States. So two very different issues, one concerning access to the oil and gas riches on the ocean floor of the Arctic Ocean and the other concerning a right of transit.

SIMON: And Prime Minister Harper made a well-publicized trip this week. What was he trying to achieve? Was that kind of showing the colors too?

Dr. BYERS: To a significant degree, Mr. Harper's trip was about Canadian domestic politics. Pushing the Arctic sovereignty button is a pretty common thing for Canadian politicians to do. But in addition to that, Mr. Harper was making some quite prudent announcements concerning strengthening Canada's military presence along the Northwest Passage, as Canada seeks to demonstrate to the world that it is willing to take its responsibility seriously in dealing with environmental and security concerns.

SIMON: They announced, I guess you'd call them upgrades, in some naval equipment, didn't he?

Dr. BYERS: Yes. Mr. Harper has announced that the Canadian Navy will be acquiring between six and eight new patrol vessels. But the vessels that he has promised will not be able to transit the Northwest Passage during most of the year, nor will they be able to go up to the Arctic Ocean and to the area where Russia has been active.

And so there's been a real push - and I've been part of it - for Mr. Harper to make further announcements about recapitalizing the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker fleet, so that we can maintain the ability to go anywhere, anytime in the waters we claimed as our own.

SIMON: Go anywhere, anytime. You need an icebreaker, right?

Dr. BYERS: Yes. And our most powerful icebreaker is 38 years old at the moment. The United States has a similar issue. It has three polar class icebreakers, but two of them are at the very end of their life spans. The only country that has truly impressive, modern icebreaking ability is Russia.

Just to give you an example, the icebreaker that went to the North Pole last week is a nuclear-powered icebreaker that can sail through more than 10 feet of ice at speed and break through ridges that are up to 20 feet thick.

SIMON: Mercy. Professor Byers, you're Canada research chair in global politics and you got a specialty in the Arctic, right?

Dr. BYERS: That is correct. And I suppose I have that specialty simply because the Arctic has a very major foreign policy issue for my country. Forty percent of Canada is in the Arctic, and Canada is the second largest country on Earth.

SIMON: Professor Byers, it's good talking to you.

Dr. BYERS: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Michael Byers at the University of British Columbia.

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