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."[ More ]
As China and Russia boost their military presence in the resource-rich far north, U.S. intelligence agencies are scrambling to study potential threats in the Arctic for the first time since the Cold War, a sign of the region's growing strategic importance.[ More ]
President Obama on Wednesday signed an executive order establishing a new panel that will advise the federal government on preserving the Alaskan Arctic.[ More ]
Russian long-range aviation bases are increasing their presence in the Arctic, the press service of the Eastern Military District reported Thursday.[ More ]
Despite ongoing cooperation between Arctic nations – Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States– mainstream rhetoric often implies Arctic stakeholders are teetering on the brink of conflict, which could have the perverse effect of bringing about this conflict.[ More ]
While many existing oil and gas reserves in other parts of the world are facing steep decline, the Arctic is thought to possess vast untapped reservoirs. Eager to tap into this largess, Russia and its Arctic neighbors — Canada, Norway, the United States, Iceland and Denmark (by virtue of its authority over Greenland) — have encouraged energy companies to drill in the region.[ More ]
The author argues that main source of "global energy reserves and geopolitical tensions could shift in the not-too-distant future from the Middle East to the Arctic" and argues for a robust U.S. military presence and strategy in the Arctic to defend U.S. interests.[ More ]
The author notes that in contrast to the pessimistic accounts of a pending resource war in the Arctic, "the most significant development in the Arctic today is the ever-increasing level of international cooperation – especially between Russia and the NATO countries."[ More ]
The author lays out a plan for how the U.S. can help ease tensions in the Arctic, including by improving international cooperation, developing better relations with Russia, and increasing investments in "technologies that enable safe operations and monitor the environment".[ More ]
The author offers an historical perspective on the current war over Arctic resources by looking at a period 400 years ago when a similar scramble for Arctic resources led to conflict.[ More ]
Because nations that actively seek Arctic resources stand to obtain strategic advantages, efficient and effective resolutions of Arctic boundary disputes are of vital importance. As the Polar Ice Cap continues to melt, Arctic nations will continue to compete for Arctic territory and accompanying natural resources. The efficient, effective, and peaceful resolution of Arctic territorial disputes will have a profound impact on geopolitics, property ownership, and international law- especially in an economic climate of escalating oil prices.284 Although the international resolution of Arctic territorial disputes will require immediate and bold diplomatic action, as explained by scholar Bruce Jackson, "[t]he fact that the Arctic, more than any other populated region of the world, requires the collaboration of so many disciplines and points of view to be understood at all, is a benefit rather than a burden."
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.
If one were to form an opinion about the risk of conflict stemming from a perceived ‘scramble for the Arctic’, such as is portrayed by media sources, and even a few well-respected academic writers, it would be understandable if the reader came away with an opinion that the Arctic is a powder-keg waiting to be ignited by greed-fuelled interests.
Based on the research presented here, it is hoped that a more measured opinion may be formed, which recognizes that while there are numerous sources for potential dispute in the region, there is also the recognition that Arctic stakeholders have much more to gain through cooperation than through confrontation. In spite of isolated moments of inflammatory rhetoric and grandstanding, the relationship between the key Arctic states and stakeholders has been marked by optimism and mutual cooperation. There is an incredible opportunity for governments, industries and indigenous peoples to all benefit from the changes occurring in the Arctic. While the current governance and security architecture can be improved upon to ensure that consistent and ade- quate legislation and enforcement mechanisms are in place, what is needed above all is continued cooperation and goodwill between all the parties that stand to gain from the opportunities presenting themselves in the High North.
In addition to large deposits of Arctic oil, gas, and other natural minerals, the Arctic Ocean is connected to several significant breeding areas of fish stocks, which are anticipated to move farther north as an apparent result of changes in Arctic water temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that this shift has been going on for the past 40 years, with some stocks nearly disappearing from U.S. waters as the fish “seem to be adapting to changing temperatures and finding places where their chances of survival are greater.”23 In fear of uncontrolled new developments, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided in 2009 to ban all commercial fishing in a 200,000-square-mile Arctic area, from the Bering Strait to the disputed U.S.-Canadian maritime border. As a reshifting of fish stocks takes place, increased fishing oppor- tunities are likely to result in disputes over quotas and fishing areas. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) is already patrolling the Bering Sea border with Russia, which has been the source of some tension because of overfishing and boundary disputes. Norwegian and Russian cooperation on fishing in the Barents Sea has generally been promoted as a positive example of border cooperation, but incidents between the Norwegian Coast Guard and Russian trawlers have occurred from time to time, such as the arrest of the Russian trawler Sapphire II for illegal dumping of fish in waters around Svalbard in late Sep- tember 2011. While the company owning the trawler was given a €57,000 fine, both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre moved quickly to diffuse the issue and stress that there was “no conflict” between the countries regarding fisheries.24 With increased fishing activity in the Arctic, such issues are again likely to develop. At the same time, increased activity demands increased capacity from the national coast guards, as a large part of search-and-rescue activity revolves around fishing vessels.
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.
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
In sum, UNCLOS and a wide range of complementary international agreements and organizations provide a legal framework for the issues we face—or soon will face—in the Arctic. That is not to say the existing framework provides clear or robust rules for every situation. Nor can it guarantee that any state—Russia, the United States, or any other—will always conduct itself in a manner that lives up to international standards. But the framework provides an adequate starting point, and it should also remind us that “new” challenges facing the Arctic are not necessarily unique or unfamiliar. Many of these issues—from drawing maritime borders to promoting safe navigation to protecting the marine environment— are quintessential law of the sea issues to which international policymakers bring a wealth of experience.
The Arctic nations are preparing submissions for the extended shelves; Russia’s is currently under review. Under the terms of the convention, the American zone would be the largest in the world— more than 3.3 million square miles, an area greater than the lower 48 states combined.74 In addition to protection of shelf claims, the convention is good for the United States because it sets pollution standards and requires signatories to protect the marine environment. The United States has not submitted a claim because it has not ratified the Convention.75
Ratification is also important for U.S. long-term presence in the region. In the absence of shared law, countries often make unreasonable and irres- ponsible claims in the maritime environment—the Arctic will be no different.76 Without binding law, the United States gambles on long-term credibility to enforce international law, freely navigate the oceans, and protect the business ventures that rely on uniform laws.
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.
For example, the Obama Administration’s January 2014 Arctic strategy implementation plan lists six major national security objectives for the Arctic region. Only one of these objectives—“Promote International Law and Freedom of the Seas”—intersects with UNCLOS.10Implementation Plan for The National Strategy for the Arctic Region . The White House: Washington, D.C., January 31, 2014 (32p). [ More (3 quotes) ] The implementation plan details the “next steps” for freedom of the seas in the Arctic.
None of these “next steps” would be measurably advanced by U.S. membership in UNCLOS. For instance, the United States conducts maritime exercises and operations on a global scale and has done so ever since it launched a blue-water navy. Next steps such as information sharing, relationship building, and strategic communications are not contingent on UNCLOS membership and may be accomplished through any number of bilateral and multilateral means, including the Arctic Council. The next steps listed in the implementation plan are important and should be pursued by the responsible executive departments, but none of them require U.S. membership in UNCLOS.
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.
- Warming arctic is opening up new potential shipping lanes and resource extraction possibilities but increasing risks of conflict and tension over the same
- Nations are pursuing Arctic claims in emotional and nationalistic manner, heightening the risks of conflict
- No major tension between Arctic states but situation could change dramatically as race for resources heats up
- Disputes over arctic fishing resources have already lead to increased tensions between arctic nations
- ... and 5 more quote(s)
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.
- U.S. sees low level of military threat from disputes in Arctic
- Existing security framework and economic incentives likely to defuse any conflict in the Arctic
- Despite rhetoric, existing governance and security framework in Arctic sufficient to prevent conflicts
- Despite rhetoric, Canada unlikely to resort to military action to protect Arctic claims
- ... and 8 more quote(s)