With the rapid melting of ice, the Arctic region is increasingly becoming a more accessible zone for commercial fishing, freshwater, minerals, coal, iron, copper, oil, gas, and shipping — the reason why it is catching the world powers’ attention. Arctic states — Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Russia, Norway and the US — are in a rush to exploit the opportunities that this mineral-and-gas-rich region offers. With such lust for resources by the Western economic giants, there is all likelihood that the militarization will get intensified, and resultantly the peace and stability of the region and the globe at large would be at stake.
The Arctic region is located around the North Pole. It consists of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Alaska (United States), Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. Because of thick layers of ice, the region was “inaccessible” until the end of 20th century and there were not much territorial disputes until the beginning of the 21st century.
Ice is now melting rapidly in the Arctic — thanks to global warming — and it has already reduced by as much as 50 percent compared to 1950s. The region is warming faster than other areas across the globe. Such rapid melting of ice is making the region increasingly “accessible”. The melting of the sea ice is opening up trade routes (during the summers) between Asia and Europe through the Arctic Ocean which was unimaginable even a couple of decades ago. In 2007, the Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans opened for the first time.
The constant warming of the climate and the increasing accessibility will make extraction of oil and gas from the region much easier. It is estimated that the region holds oil reserves of up to 13 percent of the global total of undiscovered oil and 30 percent of natural gas. There are also other precious metals. Such ‘speculations’ and
‘accessibility’ phenomenon has given birth to plenty of disputes among the countries surrounding the region.
Most serious disputes are:
(i) regarding boundaries in the Beaufort Sea and the status of the Northwest Passage between the US and Canada;
(ii) regarding Hans Island between Canada and Denmark (via Greenland);
(iii) regarding the Lomonosov Ridge — a mountain range across the region — among Canada, Denmark and Russia; and
(iv) regarding the maritime border from the Bering Sea into the region between the US and Russia.
All the countries surrounding the region are involved in disputes regarding the ownership and control over its different parts. Along with the five Arctic countries — Canada, Denmark, Russia, Norway and the US — China and the UK are also involved in a dispute over their claims over the Svalbard archipelago.
Dispute Resolution Efforts
Some of the Arctic countries have been trying to solve their disputes through the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But both CLCS and UNCLOS lack appropriate mandate from many countries across the world, including the five Arctic countries, to impose “legally binding” decisions or provisions for any maritime disputes. This creates scopes for intense territorial and maritime disputes concerning the control, exploration and exploitation of the energy resources in such a region that is becoming increasingly accessible for such purpose i.e. energy exploration and exploitation.
In the prevailing scenario, all the Arctic countries, which are involved in the territorial and maritime disputes among themselves, have been moving towards militarizing the region in order to acquire their respective objectives.
Norwegian foreign secretary Jonas Gahr Stoere has already declared that the presence of “military, navy and coastguard” in the region is necessary. Canada planned deepwater “naval facility” at Nanisivik, which lies at the entrance to the disputed Northwest Passage.
Denmark filed its claim with the UN
Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in December 2014. At present, scientists from Canada, Russia and Denmark are each now trying to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge — running 1,800 kilometers from the top of Ellesmere Island across the North Pole and back south through Russian waters — is an extension of their continental shelf.
Canada (under former PM Stephen Harper’s administration) promised to build armed ice-breakers, several patrol ships and several vessels in order to proceed toward gripping the Arctic. In 2011, Canada conducted large-scale “military exercises” in the region.
In August 2015, the US permitted Shell to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, which falls within the periphery of Alaskan Arctic. The US Coast Guard has already deployed “sophisticated ships, aircrafts and other maritime assets” in the Alaskan Arctic for the duration of Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. Through such presence, the US is not only trying to exploit energy resources of the Arctic region, but also trying to keep its “military presence” deep inside the region.
In the meanwhile, Russian scientists dived to the seabed in the Arctic Ocean and planted a titanium Russian flag (Russia claimed that it was flag of Russia’s ruling party) in 2007 in order to beef up their claims. Russia has already moved to restore a Soviet-era “military base” and other “military outposts” in the Arctic. In early 2015, Russia exercised Arctic “military patrols” from its Northern Fleet, involving “38,000 servicemen, more than 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircrafts”. More interestingly, Russia is currently planning to jointly explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic fields with China, which is increasingly becoming a strong “military power” besides being an economic giant.
As of yet, the Arctic region is largely untouched by mankind. However, with the ice caps melting, access to the Arctic oil and gas reserves, estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, will become easier — a prediction that has already sparked a military competition in the region. Such militarisation of the region is likely to increase with almost all the countries increasing their military deployments and exercises, and there appears little hope and opportunity for any diplomatic resolution (or political agreement) of the disputes. In that event, the current non-hostile debate over the Arctic could turn into a violent confrontation.