A tale of two poles

The world's children may soon be needing to write to Santa Claus in Russian if Moscow's claim to the North Pole, made this week without a trace of humour, is realised, giving new life to the phrase "cold war". No sooner had the Russians made their announcement than the US Coast Guard said it would be dispatching an icebreaker to the Arctic on a "research mission" on Monday.Sending submarines to the pole to plant a Russian flag on the seabed more than two-and-a-half miles down is all very well, but ignores the fact that there are four other countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle: Canada, Norway, the United States and Danish Greenland. Under the UN convention on the Law of the Sea, they also have economic rights to a zone up to 200 miles from their respective coasts. In a rare moment of foresight, George Bush urged Congress as long ago as May 15 to belatedly ratify the convention as it was in "America's best interest" to do so.

Canada's foreign minister, Peter MacKay, dismissed the Russian claim out of hand: "This isn't the 15th century," he said. "You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say, we're claiming this territory." It isn't the 16th century either, or the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th, in all of which many a territorial grab was made by going ashore and planting a flag.

Britain has a long record in this field, most recently in 1955, when it formally hoisted a flag on the uninhabited island of Rockall, 250 miles north-west of Ireland. The claim was disputed by Ireland, Denmark and Iceland. In the Falkland Islands, the union flag planted there in 1833 was the third colonial banner to go up. The French and Spanish flags preceded it, but the Royal Navy applied force majeure. The Argentinian colours taken ashore 25 years ago spectacularly failed to take root, but the challenge to British sovereignty has not gone away.

Jamming a flagpole in the sand brings no guarantee of permanence. Sri Lanka was held in turn by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, each for about 150 years, before independence. European powers hoisted their colours over vast swaths of the Americas, Africa and Asia, but all these territories have long since hauled down the colonial banners and gone their own way.

If there were any justice, Australia would be called New Holland, thanks to the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman. He was the first to sail round the island continent, going ashore in various places. He also "discovered" New Zealand (600 years after the Maoris), which through its name retains the link with the Netherlands, even though it was the union flag that was hoisted there in 1840. His posthumous consolation is the Tasman Sea and the island of Tasmania.

The most famous flag planter in British history was surely Captain James Cook, who laid claim to the east coast of Australia in 1770, in good time to provide an advance solution to the problem of the authorities at home, who would soon have to find somewhere else to dump convicts, after the American declaration of independence in 1776.

His last voyage began in that year, when he was sent over the Pacific to look for a passage across the north coast of North America. Pausing only to discover, and suitably beflag, the Sandwich Islands, he got to the Bering Strait, not far from where the Russian subs did their nefarious work this week, before he was forced to turn back. He arrived in Hawaii in 1779 to a friendly reception, which turned sour when he went back ashore to recover a stolen boat and was murdered. Hawaii is the only state in the union to incorporate the union flag in its standard, in Cook's honour.

Mr MacKay may be making a false analogy when he refers to such colonialist efforts because the Russian flag was planted in "inner space" some 5,000 metres under water, a move without precedent (the Americans planted the Stars and Stripes in outer space on the moon in 1969, but with admirable restraint did not lay claim to it).

Vladimir Putin and his submariners would however be well advised not to underestimate the Canadians, who have proved capable of seeing off the mighty US navy. There is a record of a dialogue between them and the USS Abraham Lincoln, a 100,000-tonne nuclear aircraft carrier, which asks the Canadians to divert 15 degrees north to avoid a collision. "Negative," says a Canadian radio voice. "You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to the south to avoid a collision." The US captain describes the awesome assets of his battlegroup and demands compliance "or countermeasures will be taken".

Canadian reply: "This is a lighthouse. Your call."

Dan van der Bat, a military historian and author of The Atlantic Campaign.