Arctic resource disputes unlikely to lead to conflict
Despite the rhetoric, disputes over Arctic resources are unlikely to devolve into conflict as states have to date been operating in a cooperative manner and there are sufficient international forums and structures (including UNCLOS) in place to manage disputes if they should occur.
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While some media reports have attempted to link Canada and Russia’s increased military focus on the Arctic as evidence of a desire for military confrontation over Arctic resources,53 there is little in terms of strategic intent that would lend credibility to such claims. In Canada’s case, it has long perceived the need to demonstrate a tangible presence over the vast Arctic territory it claims as its own. The sheer scale of the territory in question, and the costs and logistics associated with maintaining even a modest presence in the Arctic, has historically led to Canada talking tough on Arctic sovereignty, but doing little by way of action. As the Arctic now becomes more accessible, Canada merely recognises the need to match its actions more closely with its rhetoric. If the Canadian government follows through with the majority of the initiatives mentioned above, it would only serve to reinforce Canada’s Arctic sovereignty claims and be seen by its own public to be taking action on a highly topical issue. These actions will not destabilize the Arctic, provided that the Canadian government is clear and consistent in communicating its intent.
"The Implications of Ice Melt on Arctic Security
." Defence Studies
. Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2011): 297-322. [ More (6 quotes) ]
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Nonetheless, Russia’s gambit accelerated a media obsession with the Arctic. In the more than two years since Russia’s North Pole adventure—and against a backdrop of a retreating polar ice cap and rising temperatures3—journalists and scholars have come to describe the Arctic’s future in alarmist terms. These reports include warnings of “a race for control of the Arctic,”4 and a “coming anarchy” in which states will “unilaterally grab” as much territory as possible to secure new sources of oil and natural gas.5 Some describe the Arctic as the site of “an armed mad dash” and a potential source of a future armed conflict, likely involving the United States and Russia.6 This troubling picture has generated calls for a new international agreement—an “Arctic Treaty”—to provide a comprehensive legal regime for the region.7 In light of the above, it is easy to see why the casual observer would be left thinking that when it comes to the Arctic, we are operating in a legal vacuum.
But that is simply not the case. Indisputably, the Arctic poses many challenges, but it is not a twenty-first century incarnation of the Wild West. There are institutions and legal frameworks in place through which the challenges of Arctic governance and management can and should be addressed. As discussed below, the centerpiece of that framework is the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS” or “Convention”).8 Moreover, within the existing governance structure, Russia’s track record with respect to the Arctic—perhaps in contrast to Russia’s recent record elsewhere—has arguably been more positive than not. As such, rather than fixating on the Arctic as a flashpoint for confrontation, it may be more useful to consider the Arctic as an opportunity for constructive engagement.
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Finally, is there a “Russian question” looming behind all of these issues? Whether we choose to proceed by strengthening and extending the existing framework where we must, or to develop new solutions, will Russia choose to participate within that system? As noted at several points above, Russia, by and large, is already doing so. Moreover, Russian officials have been at pains to counteract the characterization of the Arctic described at the beginning of this article: the faulty notion of the Arctic as a future battleground between Russia and the West. For example, the Russian Foreign Ministry has publicly stated that discussion of “a possible military conflict for Arctic resources is baseless” and that the problems facing the region will be resolved “on the basis of international law.”97 Even the provocative figure at the head of Russia’s North Pole expedition has sought to downplay the situation, remarking that “[n]obody’s going to war with anybody” and that while Russia will “defend [its] economic interests . . . a conflict in the near future” is unlikely.98 Moreover, the United States has largely acknowledged that Russia is adhering to the applicable rule of law, in particular with respect to the extended continental shelf.99 Simultaneously, Russia appears to be engaged with the international community when it comes to the Arctic: through the Arctic Council, through the IMO, and in bilateral and multilateral efforts with its fellow Arctic states.100
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There is no reason to believe that the Arctic region will be characterized by military conflict between and among Arctic and non-Arctic nations. The U.S. Department of Defense maintains that there is a “relatively low level of threat” in the Arctic region because it is “bounded by nation states that have not only publicly committed to working within a common framework of international law and diplomatic engagement, but also demonstrated ability and commitment to doing so over the last fifty years.”9
The “relatively low level of threat” in the Arctic is reflected in the aforementioned Arctic policy documents. While these documents call for improvements in Arctic infrastructure, they do not call for any significant military buildup in the region. These policy documents also indicate that there is minimal overlap between U.S. national security interests in the Arctic and U.S. accession to UNCLOS.
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The main economic prizes in the Arctic are oil and gas and mineral resources. The primary reserves belong to Russia, and the major exploration activity also is theirs. Recent estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey are that 30% of the remaining world reserves of natural gas and some 10% of the oil are in the Arctic. To date, unresolved issues involving demarcation of sea beds under the UNCLOS are not a major issue in the pace of energy development; rather, the key factors are costs of development and the price cycle of oil and gas. Offshore projects are the most costly and environmentally dangerous, and most of the known reserves of oil and gas are within national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which extend 200 nautical miles from the coastline. Thus, immediate prospects for interstate conflict over oil and gas reserves appear small.
These recent events in December 2013 suggest that the Arctic will be swept up in a vortex of militarization and territorial disputes, in a rush for Arctic riches and shipping opportunities.
This hawkish posturing, however, is not representative of 21st century Arctic relations, and could, in fact, contribute to a decline in ongoing regional cooperation, should it create an atmosphere of mistrust. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) 2013 Arctic Strategy makes a compelling argument: “Political rhetoric and press reporting about boundary disputes and competition for resources may inflame regional tension.” Further, the policy report states, “Efforts to manage disagreements diplomatically may be hindered if the public narrative becomes one of rivalry and conflict.” In what could be seen as a highly unusual policy statement, the DoD takes a clear position on the adverse effects of bellicose or misinformed communication to redirect Arctic discourse toward a more accurate appraisal of the persistent multinational commitment to cooperation.
When we consider military presence in the Arctic, we must not assume that militarization is on the horizon. Nor should we assume that the Arctic is a chaotic panacea ripe for expansive commercialization. Rather, countless women and men, hailing from an expansive range of associations, nations, and Arctic indigenous groups have contributed invaluable knowledge toward fulfilling the desire for cooperation and peaceful relations between Arctic nations. At the very least, the spirit of the Arctic Council under which members negotiated not one, but two legally binding agreements within the span of two years must be maintained. To not question media headlines or bellicose political rhetoric aimed at stirring domestic passions, not only discredits the work that goes into negotiating the complexities of a warming Arctic, but it is also misleading, if not detrimental to future relations.
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Is this a rush to secure scarce resources in the High North? Will there be a new “Cold War” over disputed borders and resources. No: that threat is overblown because the legal institutions for governing territorial disputes, particularly the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, are strong and generally recognized by all parties. All recent evidence shows that parties are inclined to resolve disagreements under the principles of the law, using both bilateral negotiations and multilateral fora like the Arctic Council.
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Just a half decade ago, the scramble for the Arctic looked as if it would play out quite differently. In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the North Pole’s sea floor, and in the years that followed, other states also jock- eyed for position, ramping up their naval patrols and staking out ambitious sovereignty claims. Many observers—including me—predicted that without some sort of comprehensive set of regulations, the race for resources would inevitably end in conflict. “The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock,” I wrote in these pages in 2008, “and that could eventually lead to . . . armed brinkmanship.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to Arctic anarchy. Rather than harden positions, the possibility of increased tensions has spurred the countries concerned to work out their differences peacefully. A shared interest in profit has trumped the instinct to compete over territory. Proving the pessimists wrong, the Arctic countries have given up on saber rattling and engaged in various impressive feats of cooperation. States have used the 1982 un Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos)—even though the United States never ratified it—as a legal basis for settling maritime boundary disputes and enacting safety standards for commercial shipping. And in 2008, the five states with Arctic coasts—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States—issued the Ilulissat Declaration, in which they promised to settle their overlapping claims in an orderly manner and expressed their support for unclos and the Arctic Council, the two international institutions most relevant to the region.
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With an increasingly globalized world comes a globalized economy. Inherent in such an economy is a security element, which serves to deter states from actions that run contrary to the greater economic good. When coupled with the military deterrent provided by the US, it is all but inconceivable that Russia, or any Arctic state would engage in military activity in the region, which goes beyond a simple show of force.
This suggests that the existing security apparatus in place in the Arctic is sufficient to meet both current and future requirements. That apparatus is built around the sovereign authority of the Arctic Five states, and is bolstered by the Arctic Council. The Council provides not only a forum for mutual discussion and understanding, but also encourages consistency in Arctic policy development and enforcement. Backing it up is the legislative framework of UNCLOS, which provides the legal backbone from which to seek resolution of maritime boundary disputes. The globalized economy provides an additional deterrent to irresponsible actors, primarily through the actions of risk-averse investors who will sell off investments and thus rob the actors of much needed capital.
"The Implications of Ice Melt on Arctic Security
." Defence Studies
. Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2011): 297-322. [ More (6 quotes) ]
The author argues that while the Arctic is increasingly becoming a source of geopolitical interest with Russia and China squaring off, it is unlikely to lead to conflict in that same way that the situation in the South China Seas as any disputes "can probably be settled by peaceful means, because the poles are literally the only places on Earth with no history of warfare over territorial claims."
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