COPENHAGEN - Denmark summoned Canada's envoy to the Nordic country on Monday for talks on a territorial dispute over a small, frozen rock in the Arctic circle.
Last week, Canada's Defense Minister Bill Graham visited the 1.3 square km (half a square mile) Hans Island located about 1,000 km (620 miles) from the North Pole between Canada's Ellesmere Island and Greenland, which belongs to Denmark.
Graham defended his visit, saying that he was in the area and decided to see the Inukshuks—rock structures used as land markers by the Inuit—that Canadian forces had set up on the Island. Although insisting that the trip was not intended as a diplomatic snub to Denmark, analysts say the visit was an effort to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the far north, which is expected to become increasingly important as global warming melts artic ice, making oil and gas reserved more accessible.
Denmark is cautious about signing away sovereignty over any territory after it was forced to look on as neighboring Norway discovered massive oil reserves just within its borders shortly after those were drawn in the North Sea forty years ago.
"We consider Hans Island to be part of Danish territory and will therefore hand over a complaint about the Canadian minister's unannounced visit," Head of Department of International Public Law at Denmark's Foreign Ministry, Peter Taksoe-Jensen, told Reuters.
Josef Motzfeldt, deputy leader of Greenland’s home rule government, was quoted on a Danish Internet site as saying that Graham’s visit constituted “occupation” of the disputed territory.
Although downplaying the issue, both nations stand firm on their claims to the island, around which they hope one day to find potentially lucrative natural resources.
"Canada's claim to the island has a strong foundation in international law ... Canada can and will visit the island as and when it sees fit," said a spokesman for Canada's foreign ministry in Ottawa.
"No actions or assertions by Denmark detract from the absolute sovereignty Canada has over the island," he added.
The bilateral dispute stems back to 1973, when borders drawn between Greenland and Canada ignored Hans Island.
Since then the two sides have expressed their claim by hoisting flags, with Danes leaving bottles of aquavit behind for the next troupe of flag-bearing Canadians, who leave bottles of whiskey in return.