The polar endgame is anticlimax: no major conflict in sight, and strategic cooperation reigns
The Arctic, strategically located between the US and the former USSR, was a frontline of the Cold War. Nuclear submarines prowled the Arctic Ocean’s depths, while long-range bombers circled high overhead.
In the early 21st century, the Arctic is on the frontline of a very different crisis. Climate change is melting the sea-ice and permafrost, threatening ecosystems and indigenous peoples, facilitating access by non-state actors, and giving new relevance to maritime boundary disputes.
Fortunately, Arctic politics have taken a cooperative turn since 1990, when the US and the USSR negotiated the location of their boundary in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea. The cooperation has only intensified in the face of the multiple challenges associated with climate change.
The most significant security threats in today’s Arctic exist along its southern fringes, in places like the Northwest Passage and the Barents Sea. They involve non-state actors, such as drug smugglers, gunrunners, illegal immigrants, and even terrorists potentially taking advantage of ice-free waters to move contraband or people between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, or into North America or Europe.
Not all Arctic countries are equipped to address these threats. Denmark and Norway possess a few ice-strengthened frigates. The US Coastguard has three icebreakers, two of which are quite old. Canada has a small fleet of useful, but aged, Coast Guard icebreakers that it plans to replace with six ice-strengthened gunships and one new icebreaker – in about 10 years’ time. Russia is by far the best equipped of the Arctic countries, with several dozen icebreakers, some of them nuclear-powered.
Although nuclear submarines are ineffective against non-state actors, the US and Russia still deploy them regularly in the North. Two US subs conducted communications tests off of northern Alaska in early 2009, while the majority of Russia’s subs are based at the Arctic Ocean port of Murmansk. Both countries also send military aircraft over the Arctic Ocean, with one exercise – by two Russian bombers in February 2009 – prompting a public expression of concern from Canadian Minister of Defence Peter MacKay.
Climate change is more apparent in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth. In addition to the rising temperatures caused by global greenhouse gas emissions, change is driven by Arctic-specific ‘feedback loops’ arising out of the precarious balance between water and ice. An increase in average annual temperature of just a fraction of one degree can transform vast areas of highly reflective sea-ice into dark, solar-energy-absorbing water. In recent decades, average annual temperatures in the western Canadian Arctic have increased by more than three degrees Celsius.
In 2004, the Arctic Council released the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which reported that the average extent of sea-ice cover in summer had declined by 15 to 20 percent over the previous three decades. The rate of ice-melt has accelerated since then, with one million square kilometres lost in 2007 alone. A complete, late summer melt-out of Arctic sea-ice could occur within the next decade, and perhaps as early as 2013. Arctic waters would then become navigable 12 months per year, since a complete melt would spell the end of the ‘multi-year’ ice that, after surviving the summer, becomes thicker and harder as a result of the accretion of new ice and the leaching out of sea-salt during the warming-and-cooling cycle. The Arctic Ocean would resemble the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where ice-strengthened ships and icebreaker-escorted convoys can operate safely in winter.
The Northwest Passage offers cargo ships a 7,000-kilometre shortcut between East Asia and the Atlantic Seaboard, as compared with the usual route through the Panama Canal. Last year, there were a record 23 transits of the waterway. The Northern Sea Route along the coast of Russia offers a similar shortcut between East Asia and Europe, while a third option – sailing straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean – would cut the distance from East Asia to Europe in half.
Each summer now, hundreds of cruise ships visit Greenland, dozens enter the Canadian Arctic, and a few travel to the geographic North Pole. As the ice melts, ships will also be used to transport hydrocarbons from, and through, the Arctic. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains 83 billion barrels of oil and 44 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, most of which are located in shallow areas within the uncontested jurisdiction of one or another coastal state.
All this shipping creates environmental risks, since Arctic ecosystems are exceedingly fragile, oil degrades and dissipates very slowly at cold temperatures, and long distances render cleanup efforts expensive and time-consuming. Accidents can also threaten lives, which is why an Arctic-wide search-and-rescue treaty is being negotiated to ensure that information and assets can be deployed without regard to international boundaries or national pride.
A web of international law extends across the Arctic, with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at its centre. UNCLOS has been ratified by four of the five countries that border the Arctic Ocean, with the US accepting the relevant provisions as customary international law. These rules ensure that no country will ever ‘own’ the geographic North Pole, which is located roughly 700 kilometres to the north of Greenland, Ellesmere Island and the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. This is because coastal states do not possess full sovereignty beyond the 12-mile territorial sea; instead, they have certain sovereign rights out to 200 miles, and sometimes farther. Article 76 of UNCLOS specifies that coastal states may claim rights over an “extended continental shelf” if the depth and shape of the seabed and the thickness of underlying sediments indicate a “natural prolongation” of the shelf closer inshore.
On the basis of the little that we know about the Arctic Ocean thus far, it is possible that either Russia, Denmark or Canada will be able to scientifically demonstrate that the seabed at the North Pole is a natural prolongation of its continental shelf. If so, the country in question will have the exclusive right to exploit the resources of that area of seabed – and nothing more. The water and sea-ice will remain parts of the high seas.
Regardless of what happens at the North Pole, the sheer size of the Arctic Ocean and the lengths of uncontested coastlines mean that Russia will likely have sovereign rights over an expanse of seabed larger than Western Europe. Canada, with the world’s longest coastline, will also have a sizeable extended continental shelf. Countries that do not border on the Arctic Ocean might feel left out, but because UNCLOS applies globally, many have the opportunity to assert similar rights along their coastlines.
Apart from the technical exercise of collecting and assessing the scientific evidence, the only significant issue concerns possible overlaps between claims. Overlaps can occur where there are disputed maritime boundaries closer inshore, since the dividing line beyond 200 miles is usually simply an extension from the starting point. Disputes of this kind exist between Canada and the US in the Beaufort Sea, and between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea. Depending on the scientific evidence, an overlap is also conceivable between Russian, Canadian and Danish claims in the central Arctic Ocean.
Article 76 requires that evidence of a natural prolongation be submitted to a body of scientists – the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf – for review and recommendations. However, the Commission will not issue recommendations with respect to overlapping claims. It is up to the countries involved to negotiate a solution, refer the matter to an international court or tribunal, or simply agree to disagree and not issue exploration licenses for the contested area.
In response to widespread misreporting about the possibility of conflict over seabed resources, Denmark hosted a summit of the Arctic Ocean coastal states in 2008. The summit culminated with all five countries reaffirming their commitment to resolving disputes peacefully within the existing framework of international law. Cooperation on seabed mapping has accelerated since then, with Canadian and US icebreakers working together in the Beaufort Sea, and diplomats from the five countries discussing the possibility of coordinated claims. This approach could create a negotiated set of boundaries before submissions are made to the UN Commission. Already, Norway and Russia have made progress in negotiating their maritime boundary, while the US-Canada dispute in the Beaufort Sea is highly susceptible to negotiation – given the common energy market created by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which reduces the economic stakes.
Some European countries and environmental groups advocate the negotiation of a comprehensive new treaty modelled on the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. They forget that the Arctic centres on an ocean – rather than a continent – with considerable powers already vested in the Arctic Ocean coastal states under UNCLOS.
International law is also central to the US-Canada dispute over the status of the Northwest Passage. The US agrees that Canada owns the channels between its 19,000 Arctic islands, but argues that they constitute an ‘international strait’ open to foreign ships without constraint. Canada, in contrast, regards the Northwest Passage as ‘internal waters’ that foreign vessels require permission to enter, and where the full force of Canadian domestic law applies. The two countries agreed-to-disagree in 1988, concluding a treaty on coastguard icebreakers that was explicitly without prejudice to their respective legal positions. Today, with the ice melting and more vessels sailing through, the environmental protection and security interests of both countries point toward further negotiations.
In 2005, then US Ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, recognized the realignment of interests and asked the US State Department to re-examine the US legal position. Then, after his term in Ottawa was over, he made his own views clear: “It is in the security interests of the United States that it [the Northwest Passage] be under the control of Canada.” Official American policy, however, remains stuck in the pre-climate change, pre-9/11 era, when thick, hard ice could be relied upon to keep foreign vessels away, and concerns about a precedent that might negatively affect the US Navy’s navigation interests elsewhere, such as in the Strait of Malacca, weighed heavier than threats from non-state actors. However, concerns about a precedent are exaggerated, since the presence of multi-year ice and the paucity of foreign transits enable the Northwest Passage to be legally distinguished from all other potential or existing international straits – with the exception of the Northern Sea Route, where Russia’s ‘internal waters’ claim is secured by its military might.
But every summer brings a heightened risk of a challenge to Canada’s position – most likely by a rogue cargo ship flying a flag of convenience, and seeking to take a 7,000-kilometre shortcut without consideration for the claims and changing interests of Canada and the US. In the circumstances, the two countries should pursue every opportunity for cooperation, including by updating and extending the 1998 treaty on coastguard icebreakers to address the new realities of the 21st century Arctic.
Cooperation is also required with the Inuit, because their traditional use and occupancy of land and sea-ice constitute key elements of nation-state sovereignty claims. At the same time, the Inuit are acquiring their own influence in international politics. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, which unites the Inuit of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia, provided an essential moral impetus for the negotiation of the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and helped to raise awareness about the Arctic dimension of climate change.
The Inuit have concluded a number of land claims agreements with national governments, most prominently the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Nunavut, with an 85 percent indigenous population, now has a majoritarian government system that effectively provides Inuit self-government. Greenland, which was accorded home rule in 1979, is 88 percent Inuit. In 1985, Greenlanders voted to leave the European Economic Community, and, in 2008, to take on additional governing powers. Denmark retains responsibility only for Greenland’s defence, foreign affairs and financial policy. If oil and gas are discovered and exploited in Greenland and Nunavut, it is possible to envisage a federation between the two territories that eventually acquires its own status as an independent nation-state.
Whatever future the Arctic holds, it will likely be based on cooperation, consent and international law. There is no race for Arctic resources, and no appetite for conflict.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book is Who Owns the Arctic?