Players: Diverse interests
Three different groups of countries with an interest in the Arctic can be identified today: first, the five coastal states already mentioned above; second, the coastal states plus Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, which combine into the eight Arctic nations exercising sovereign rights within the Arctic Circle; and third, a heterogeneous group of non-Arctic states such as China, India, South Korea, and a number of European countries that have asserted various interests in raw materials, research, shipping routes, and Arctic infrastructure.
Of the five coastal states, Russia and Norway attach strategic importance to the Arctic. Moscow views the Arctic from an energy perspective as well as in geostrategic terms. Russia’s best access to the Atlantic and the Pacific is from the Arctic Ocean. If the ice cap of the Arctic were to lose its importance as a natural barrier, this would enormously spur Moscow’s maritime ambitions. However, any such ambitions are impeded by persistent legal uncertainties, limited administrative capacities, and a lack of technology. An interesting aspect of Russia’s Arctic policy is that the Russian elite tries to use “Northernness” as an element of identity-building in an effort to define Russia as distinct from the West and from Asia. Yet, this is a largely abstract endeavour, as only 1.5 per cent of Russians are living in the Arctic. Unlike Scandinavian countries, Russian society does not have a particularly Northern identity.
For Norway, the Arctic is of relevance in security terms as well as economically. The massive Russian military presence in the Arctic is located near Norway’s northeastern border. Oslo’s response to this has been a mixture of deterrence, reassurance through NATO, and cooperation with Moscow. From an economic viewpoint, Arctic gas and oil are priorities for the world’s second-largest gas exporter, as fields further south are becoming depleted. In this respect, Norway is in the comfortable position of being a world leader in offshore extraction technology. The Arctic’s importance for Norway also stems from the fact that one-third of its territory (inhabited by almost ten per cent of the Norwegian population) lies north of the Arctic Circle.
For Canada, the changes in the Arctic constitute a major challenge. The country’s Arctic territories are thinly populated and, accordingly, hardly developed. Canadian politicians also try to use “Northernness” as an identity-building factor, with the public showing a high sensitivity for Arctic sovereignty issues. But Canada has been reluctant to invest the resources that would be necessary to enhance its presence in the Arctic and implement its grand development schemes for the region. With regard to Denmark, the problems of the Arctic are determined above all by its relationship with Greenland, which – although belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark – enjoys a large degree of autonomy and may possibly seek independence in the future. Denmark accordingly seeks to increase its activity in the Arctic so as to make the case for Greenland’s association with the Kingdom. As for the US, some interest in the Arctic has been aroused, especially among oil companies. The possible opening of new Arctic shipping routes has also been on the agenda in Washington, but truly strategic interests have not been linked to the region so far.
The other three Arctic countries are unable to influence developments to the same extent as the coastal states. They are, however, taking great interest in the political processes of the region and their multilateralisation. Accordingly, they are especially intent on pointing out new “soft” security concerns, such as increased environmental dangers, and are highlighting the advantages of international cooperation in this respect. In the light of the new opportunities in the Arctic, an increasing number of non-Arctic states are also attempting to mark their presence in the region. In this regard, China, India, and South Korea have established research stations at Svalbard over the past decade. They expect their research activities to give them a greater say in Arctic matters. South Korea already has a modern icebreaker at its disposal, while China has bought a used icebreaker and is building a new one. Beijing emphasises access to raw materials as an important determining factor of its Arctic policy. India, for its part, is claiming scientific interest. For South Korea, the interests of its own shipbuilding industry are pivotal, since it already controls many specialist European shipyards and sees new business opportunities. Just like most European governments and the EU, these non-Arctic players make the case for multilateral governance in the Arctic as a means of safeguarding their respective interests.
The Geopolitics of the Arctic Commons
The Arctic: Thaw With Conflict Potential Publications
July 2012 ISN SWITZERLAND
The Arctic: Thaw With Conflict Potential
Climate change continues to expose the natural wealth and economic potential of the Arctic region. Today, we look at how the Arctic states are attempting to manage access to this commons, and we consider the potential for conflict over exploitation rights and transportation routes.
By Jonas Grätz for Center for Security Studies (CSS)
Until just a few years ago, the Arctic attracted little international attention. To be sure, this enormous territory of 21 million square kilometres between the North Pole and the Arctic Circle was of considerable importance to the navies of both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, since they could conveniently hide their submarines under the thick ice shield. Also, the shortest flight trajectories for intercontinental ballistic missiles between North America and the Russian mainland are across the North Pole. All the same, the Arctic remained a marginal region in global politics and economics. Being sparsely populated with about 4 million inhabitants on account of its harsh natural environment, it barely made headlines.
The recently surging interest in the Arctic has much to do with climate change. The Arctic did experience periodic warming and cooling phases in the past, but its surface temperature has been rising steadily over the last 45 years. Since measurements began in 1979, the sea ice has been shrinking. This development is set to continue. Recent projections predict ice-free summers for the 2030s.
Even though problems such as persistent darkness and extreme cold in winter will remain, the melting of the ice mass in the Arctic is associated with both economic and strategic opportunities. Of particular interest are the deposits of raw material in the Arctic and the opening of shorter shipping routes. Unsurprisingly, these new possibilities are whetting the appetite of a growing number of states.
The crowding of non-Arctic players into this region is strengthening the incentives for cooperation among the Arctic coastal states (Denmark, Canada, Norway, Russia, and the US). But there are also new causes for conflict, in particular regarding the lack of agreement on territorial sovereignty issues in certain regions. With the changes in the Arctic and its growing international importance, the coastal states also face new challenges in terms of national defence.
Oil and gas
The Arctic mainland is believed to hold vast deposits of mineral resources. Current debates are largely focusing on the oil and gas reserves, however, for which more precise estimates are available. The US Geological Survey reckons that the Arctic’s share in the global conventional resources yet to be found amounts to 13 per cent for crude oil and 30 per cent for natural gas. These resources are probably offshore for the most part (84 per cent). Of the Arctic’s natural gas resources, 70 per cent are attributed to the Russian exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Large gas fields have already been discovered in this 200-nautical-mile zone off the coast line, where the littoral nation holds exclusive exploitation rights.
There is no reliable information on regions outside the EEZs of the coastal states at this stage. The probability of the presence of large oil and gas reserves outside these zones is very low, however, according to current geological knowledge. Most of the presumed fields thus appear to be located within the existing EEZs – which reduces the potential for conflict.
Despite the changing climate, economic activity in the Arctic region will continue to involve high exploitation and transportation costs and considerable environmental risks. The warming of the Arctic will admittedly lead to an enlarged ice-free ocean area in summer and a prolonged ice-free period, but climate change will also bring about more frequent weather extremes such as storms and increasing iceberg drift. Oil and gas extraction in the Arctic Ocean and transportation of the raw materials will continue to prove very difficult even in littoral areas due to both economic and technological obstacles.
The boom of unconventional oil and gas in more temperate regions (see Strategic Trends 2012 ) adds further doubts as to the profitability of Arctic extraction. Indeed, there are cases where the development of already explored fields (such as the Shtokman field or the gas reserves of the Beaufort Sea) has been repeatedly postponed. Nevertheless, the depletion of resources in non-Arctic regions will likely prompt some countries increasingly to exploit Arctic oil and gas.
Shorter trade routes
The changing climate also brings about new opportunities for Arctic shipping along the Russian and North American coasts, which are increasingly ice-free during summertime. In particular, this applies to the North East Passage across the Russian Arctic, where favourable sea currents result in a thinner ice cap. Both routes would shorten the distance from Europe to Asia by about one third and would allow circumventing shipping lanes threatened by piracy. If the ice cap were to melt away completely in the summer months, an even shorter route directly across the North Pole is conceivable that would involve less complex conditions of navigation.
The new routes are not only of interest from an economic viewpoint, but also have the potential to fundamentally change the framework of naval strategy. Traditional choke points, such as the Strait of Malacca or the Suez Canal, may lose some of their strategic importance. Conversely, the significance of the Bering Strait would increase. As a result, European and Asian navies could gain in flexibility.
Despite these promising perspectives, it is worth noting that the use of the northern routes still faces numerous problems. These include a lack of navigation aids, inadequate coastal infrastructure, and the poor predictability of ice drift and storms.The ensuing uncertainties regarding route planning and transit times do not meet the just-in-time requirements of globalised production chains. Improving the infrastructure and developing Arctic naval capabilities will require a long timeframe and will not be feasible without a clear balance between national and international jurisdictions and stable national legal frameworks.