Arctic region could descend into chaos due to lack of clear governing structure to manage resource disputes
Despite the melting icecap's potential to transform global shipping and energy markets, Arctic issues are largely ignored at senior levels in the U.S. State Department and the U.S. National Security Council. The most recent executive statement on the Arctic dates to 1994 and does not mention the retreating ice. But the Arctic's strategic location and immense resource wealth make it an important national interest. Although the melting Arctic holds great promise, it also poses grave dangers. The combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership makes for a toxic brew.
The situation is especially dangerous because there are currently no overarching political or legal structures that can provide for the orderly development of the region or mediate political disagreements over Arctic resources or sea-lanes. The Arctic has always been frozen; as ice turns to water, it is not clear which rules should apply. The rapid melt is also rekindling numerous interstate rivalries and attracting energy-hungry newcomers, such as China, to the region. The Arctic powers are fast approaching diplomatic gridlock, and that could eventually lead to the sort of armed brinkmanship that plagues other territories, such as the desolate but resource-rich Spratly Islands, where multiple states claim sovereignty but no clear picture of ownership exists.
Currently, there is no major tension between the Arctic states. They all want peaceful solutions to their border disputes and see the advantages of freedom of navigation through the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. However, at the time when the coastal nations are able to increase their oil production in the Arctic, conflict can more easily occur. A shortage of energy and other resources will make the nations more determined to solve their border issues, which may increase the tension between them.