Arctic tensions currently kept in check by agreement among arctic nations to abide by UNCLOS framework
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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.
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.