The Scramble for the Arctic

The Arctic is under siege. Global warming is causing record melting of polar sea ice and thus the Arctic Ocean is becoming increasingly accessible to shipping and resource exploration. Resultantly, the five Arctic states, Canada, Russia, Denmark, the United States and Norway, are engaged in a competitive scramble to assert their claims to this new frontier and the riches it may yield. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has no treaty to govern international activity or territorial claims and competition is making the region increasingly militarised and politically unstable. Currently, states are cooperating as leaders emphasise the need to resolve territorial disputes through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However military competition is also developing in parallel to this peaceful rhetoric.

Image courtesy of the US Navy, public domain.

All states involved, except the United States, have ratified UNCLOS and claimed the permitted 12-nm territorial sea and 20-nm exclusive economic zone including the continental shelf. States can submit a claim within 10 years of ratification to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) for territorial extension, which is considered on a state by state basis. 2013 will see Canada submit its claim to UNCLCS, including for the Lomonosov Ridge which is hotly contested with Russia. In 2014 Denmark must make its submission. Norway submitted in 2006 resulting in a 10% extension of its continental shelf in 2009, although issues concerning the Svalbard Islands remain. Russia’s 2007 submission saw the Commission neither approve nor reject its claim, but advise further research.  Momentum is building towards US ratification of the treaty which never occurred despite its signing it. In May this year Secretary Clinton testified in favour of ratification before the Senate. This attempt was unsuccessful, but there is growing confidence among Senators that the treaty will be ratified soon after the 2012 US election. With two states due to submit claims and a third developing momentum towards ratification the next two years seem likely to be significant.

The Arctic is estimated to hold up to a quarter of the world’s remaining undiscovered oil and gas reserves.  Additionally, the retreat of summer sea-ice has opened two new shipping routes, the Northern Sea Route and the famous North West Passage. These routes cut days and millions of dollars off voyages. Canada unusually finds itself pitted against the world with regard to the legal status of the North West Passage, by viewing it as being internal sovereign waters. Most others regard it as being an international waterway and the United States has often challenged Canadian sovereignty by sending ships and submarines through, creating another source of regional tension. Despite intense rivalry cooperation is, at least for now, the name of the game and not overt competition.

In 2010 Russian Prime Minister Putin emphasised his belief that the Arctic powers should peacefully resolve their competing territorial claims in accordance with international law and should maintain the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation. Such cooperation was exemplified in 2010 by the resolution of their 40-year dispute with Norway over the demarcation of borders in the Arctic Ocean and Barents Sea.  Regional organisations also exist, the most notable being the Arctic Council, which although limited to environmental matters is nevertheless a vehicle for cooperation. Almost all the Arctic states are subject to UNCLOS, active members of regional organisations, liberal democracies and members of NATO (except Russia), and have used rhetoric espousing the importance of international law, suggesting that amicable resolution of territorial disputes is indeed promising.

However, parallel to such cooperation and peaceful rhetoric a five-way military competition is seemingly developing. In 2007 Russia controversially planted a flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole and resumed Cold War style strategic bomber patrols over the Arctic. Russia is seeking to create two new arctic brigades, reopen Soviet-era Arctic airbases and to bolster the capabilities of its northern fleet with new submarines, amphibious assault ships and icebreakers and new naval bases along the Northern Sea Route. Simultaneously, Canada has bolstered its own northern military capabilities by ordering a new fleet of ice-reinforced naval patrol ships, increased cold weather training, is developing a northern deep water port, launching a satellite system to monitor shipping in the North West Passage and committing to the modernisation of its Air Force. Nor are other Arctic states idly standing by. Denmark has created a new tri-force Arctic command, an Arctic naval response force, is adapting forces for Arctic warfare and is considering upgrading Thule airbase in Greenland and deploying F-16 fighters there. Norway is planning to acquire a large replenishment ship to increase the range of its naval units and has moved many of its land forces north. The United States is considering improving its ice-breaking capability. What is especially fascinating is that Canada and Norway, historically progressive states used to collaborating on concepts such as human security and the ‘right to protect’, now potentially find themselves in a distinctly realist adversarial situation. There is also the added dynamic that every Arctic state except Russia has been involved in increasingly large-scale Arctic NATO exercises, thus raising the possible development of a broad coalition against Russian attempts at Arctic expansion.

Why in this environment of cooperation and peaceful rhetoric are we witnessing an Arctic military build-up? There could be many answers, some encouraging and others worrying. The upgrading and relocation of military units could be to enable the protection of recognised national territory no longer protected by ice, or simply the natural evolution and rebalancing of military capabilities. Alternatively, given the importance of Arctic dominance to especially Russian and Canadian national identity, the military build-ups could be linked to domestic politics and thus aimed inwards. It is, however, perfectly possible that given the uncertainty over territorial ownership, states are increasing their military presence in the region in accordance with the ‘use it or lose it’ sentiment expressed by Canadian Prime Minister Harper. Perhaps it is prudent to have the resources in place to protect or advance national interests if congeniality fails and muscle is required. Finally, the anticipated time-scale before UNCLCS rules on these territorial disputes is long, especially as Russia has yet to resubmit and the United States even to ratify. Accordingly state interests need to be protected in the meanwhile. Given the high-levels of national interest at stake, perhaps states are hedging against all possible developments in the future, hoping for peace and cooperation but preparing for politics by other means. Whilst it is sensationalist to suggest that any shooting wars will ever develop, it is true that increased militarisation increases the risks of misunderstandings, accidents and escalation.


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