Two powerful factors are at play. First, accelerating sea ice loss is profoundly changing the biophysical qualities of the High North. Several hundred years ago, explorers had good reason to fear the ice. European explorers and their ships were, at times, consumed by the ice and perished in horrid circumstances. Now, it is the ice that is being unsettled.
Second, factors such as accessibility, resource potential and sovereignty are changing the Arctic. A more accessible Arctic means intensifying resource exploitation, tourist activity, energy extraction and trans-oceanic shipping.
What is at stake?
An accessible Arctic puts pressure on the five coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States) to remind other stakeholders including China, the European Union and/or commercial corporations of their national sovereignty, and to militarize, regularize and securitize their jurisdictions. In 2009, two German commercial ships travelled via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) for the first time, with the permission of Russia. And due to the circulation and pattern of sea ice loss, it is the NSR rather than the North West Passage (NWP) that looks more promising in the short term. For the Canadian government, the NWP is highly sensitive. The United States, considers it to be an international strait and not Canadian internal waters. The difference matters because if it is recognised as an international strait then rights of innocent passage are inviolate.
The Arctic’s undiscovered resource potential is eliciting interest. A recent assessment concluded that such potential lay in the uncontested waters of the coastal states. While the Russian flag-planting episode triggered febrile interest, in practice the price of energy markets and technological constraints will be more important. In Greenland, indigenous communities have expressed support for resource exploitation because it might provide a new revenue stream for (possibly) the world’s first Inuit independent state.
The primary mechanism for inter-governmental co-operation is the Arctic Council. Created in 1996, it is a soft law institution. It advises. It carries out research. It does not consider military matters. Four out of five of the coastal states are NATO members. The US and Russia, despite the ending of the Cold War, still have their submarines patrolling under the Arctic Ocean. Long-range Russian bombers fly over the Arctic much to the consternation of Canadians.
In 2008, the five coastal states reaffirmed their commitment to resolving any outstanding differences over maritime boundaries and invoked the Law of the Sea as their preferred mechanism. They will meet again in March 2010 to review progress in Canada. The other permanent members of the Arctic Council – Finland, Iceland and Sweden, have not welcomed this development.
The inference is clear. The five coastal states in the Arctic want to be the prime drivers. They literally want to stitch up the Arctic into a tapestry of national sovereignties. All five are mapping the Arctic seabed and submitting their materials to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in the expectation that they can declare extended continental shelves. The Law of the Sea allows for the rights of others of course to be respected such as rights of innocent passage.
For all five coastal states in the Arctic, it is an expensive business but the Arctic matters, and in ways that often exceeds the rational and the strategic. It is a space for the projection of national identity and pride; flags are planted, fingers are pointed and fears are articulated.
Assuming we can combine the ‘rational and strategic’ with projections of pride and/or fear, what kind of governance for the Arctic would we want? And whenever we use the ‘we’ word we run into a fundamental problem – is it clear what the ‘we’ refers to? Indigenous and first nations communities clearly represent a very different kind of ‘we’ to the European Commission, China, and the five coastal states. So with that caveat in mind, I think we need to address the following:
- The Arctic Council will need to be more than advisory organization in the longer term.
- The five Arctic coastal states need to work towards creating the Arctic as a zone of peace – the militarization of the Arctic is retrogressive.
- Indigenous and first nations communities and their human security needs deserve meaningful championing by the five coastal states.
- Further energy exploitation in the Arctic needs to be seen in a commitment to a low carbon future.
- The five coastal states need to show leadership and really act as ‘environmental stewards’.
Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and Editor of The Geographical Journal.
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