Type to search

Great Powers Shall Not in the Arctic Clash

Fall 2013 Features

Great Powers Shall Not in the Arctic Clash

Great Powers Shall Not in the Arctic ClashThe contours of new-century international law and geopolitical logic are being shaped first and foremost in the Arctic

The recent showdown between Russia and the West over Syria sits in sharp contrast with the deep cooperative logic that governs great power behaviour in today’s Arctic. Let us recall that, in 2010, at a conference in Moscow, Vladimir Putin famously said: “It is well known that, if you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic. It is very important to maintain the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation.”

Of course, everything in the High North today is changing with great rapidity – largely because the Arctic Ocean exists in a precarious balance between ice and water and is, as a consequence, acutely exposed to climate change. Indeed, at the current rate of melting, the entire ocean could be seasonally ice-free within five years. This rapid transformation has given rise to concerns about potential conflict over Arctic shipping routes and resources. And yet, apart from climate change, the most significant development in the Arctic today is the ever-increasing level of international cooperation – especially between Russia and the NATO countries.

The charting efforts of the navy of the former USSR extended to the heart of the Canadian Arctic. Indeed, in 2011, Soviet-era charts shown to the author on board the Russian research vessel Akademik Ioffe showed more depth soundings in the Northwest Passage than do comparable Canadian charts. For decades, the Soviets dominated the Arctic in military terms – to the point where, by 1989, their Northern Fleet included more than 100 nuclear submarines. Although the fleet has since been scaled back, dozens of Russian submarines continue to operate under the Arctic ice, maintaining a second-strike capability that Moscow deems essential to great power status.

Russian politicians have long used Arctic exploits to stoke nationalist pride. The first people to be designated “Heroes of the Soviet Union” were the pilots who rescued the crew of the SS Chelyuskin after it was crushed by ice in the Northern Sea Route in 1934. In 2007, Artur Chilingarov was designated a “Hero of the Russian Federation” after he descended approximately 4,000 metres in a submersible to plant a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. Chilingarov is a notable Arctic scientist, but he was also the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma during an election campaign. One of the other scientists involved in the flag plant later admitted that the event was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

In point of fact, the Russian government has explicitly acknowledged that the country’s future success will depend on international cooperation, including in respect of access to foreign capital and technology to develop vast offshore reserves of Arctic oil and gas. Oil and gas rescued Russia from economic collapse in the 1990s. Today, these account for roughly 30 percent of the country’s GDP. As more than two-thirds of that 30 percent comes from Russia’s Arctic, continued development of the region is an objective of central national importance.

Two Arctic natural gas deposits – the Bovanenkovo field on the Yamal Peninsula and the Shtokman field in the Barents Sea – hold more reserves than the total proven conventional reserves of the US. France’s Total and Norway’s Statoil have been brought in to help develop the deposits through joint-venture agreements – although development of Shtokman is on hold for the moment because of the currently diminished global demand for gas.

Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil. However, falling production levels in Western Siberia have created an imperative to move northward – often in partnership with Western companies. In April 2013, Russian state-owned Gazprom signed an agreement with Royal Dutch Shell to cooperatively explore and develop Russia’s Arctic offshore oil reserves. The importance of the agreement was underlined by the presence of both President Putin and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the signing ceremony. In June 2013, Russian state-owned Rosneft signed a similar agreement with ExxonMobil. The agreement foresees investments up to US $500 billion should reserves meet expectations.

Getting the oil and gas to markets will require improved transportation links. Much of the gas from the new fields will be shipped west through the newly opened Nord Stream pipeline, which runs along the bottom of the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany. Much of the oil, for its part, will be shipped east to Asia via the Northern Sea Route. Russia already uses icebreakers to escort commercial vessels along its 6,600 kilometre-long Arctic coastline, and charges fees for the service. (In 2007, it launched the world’s largest nuclear powered icebreaker, the Fifty Years of Victory, which is able to sail more or less at speed through 2.5 metres of ice.)

The Northern Sea has long been considered essential to Russia’s interests. During WW2, some 34 ‘lend-lease’ vessels owned by the US and crewed by Soviets carried supplies from North America along the icy waterway in order to avoid German submarines. Today, the Russian government is intent on transforming the Northern Sea Route into a commercially viable alternative to the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. Said Putin in September 2011: “The shortest route between Europe’s largest markets and the Asia-Pacific region lies across the Arctic. This route is almost a third shorter than the traditional southern one. I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes in service fees, security and quality.”

Washington opposes Moscow’s claim that portions of the Northern Sea Route constitute Russian internal waters – a classification that requires foreign ships to seek permission to enter. However, the US has never physically challenged that position. When the US Coastguard icebreaker Northwind approached the Vil’kitskii Strait north of Siberia in 1965, Moscow threatened to “go all the way” if the ship continued onward. Washington responded by ordering the Northwind to turn round, and has kept its ships away ever since.

In 2010, a ship owned by Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel was reported to have completed a round trip via the Northern Sea Route from Murmansk to Shanghai. The ship apparently needed only 41 days for the 18,000-kilometre trip, as compared to the 84 days that it would have taken it to complete the 38,000-kilometre journey by way of the Suez Canal. In 2011, the 280-metre Russian supertanker Vladimir Tikhonov carried natural gas condensate from Murmansk to Thailand. In so doing, it became the largest ever vessel to complete the route. It was able to do so because ice conditions now allow ships to sail north of the New Siberia Islands, thereby bypassing the shallow waters between those islands and the mainland.

In 2012, the Chinese research icebreaker Xuelong traversed the Northern Sea Route under the escort of the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker Vaygach. The presence of the Vaygach underlined an important point: despite the increase in shipping, Russia holds fast to its position that the Northern Sea Route passes through internal waters and is subject to its full control.

At the same time, Russia’s offshore oil and gas interests have strengthened Moscow’s commitment to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This treaty grants each coastal state a 200-nautical mile (370-kilometre) exclusive economic zone (EEZ), where it has absolute rights over fish and seabed resources. Beyond 200 nautical miles, a coastal state may also have exclusive rights to adjacent seabed resources if it can scientifically establish that the seabed in any particular area is a natural prolongation of its landmass. An international body of scientific experts – the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf – exists to review and legitimate such claims.

These international rules accord Russia a massive area of seabed – thanks to its immensely long coastline and the general shallowness of the Arctic Ocean. Indeed, the combined jurisdictional zones of the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Russia, Canada, the US, Denmark and Norway) likely cover all but two small areas of deep ocean floor near the centre.

Just as importantly, smaller overlaps in national claims are proving surprisingly easy to resolve. In 1990, Russia concluded a boundary treaty with the US in the Bering Sea. In 2010, it did likewise with Norway in the Barents Sea. Russia has also limited its seabed claims in the Central Arctic Ocean, filing an initial submission, in 2001, with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that extended just halfway across the Arctic Ocean.

The US, for its part, has also embraced cooperation, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling a 2010 meeting of the Arctic Ocean states that “[w]e need all hands on deck because there is a huge amount to do, and not much time to do it.” In the same year, the US withdrew its longstanding opposition to the creation of a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council. It also led the negotiation of an Arctic search-and-rescue treaty – an important contribution given the amount of commercial air traffic traversing the region. Now the US is advocating for a regional fisheries organization to manage the biological resources of the Central Arctic Ocean in a science-based manner, consistent with the UN Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

The US no longer opposes Russian – or potential Canadian and Danish – claims to portions of the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that runs across the centre of the Arctic Ocean. Nor does the US appear to show as much appetite today as in the past to challenge the Russian and Canadian claims that the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage constitute internal waters. (To be sure, this US posture may well change with events and changes in administration.)

The embrace of Arctic cooperation may still credibly be seen, at least in part, in the context of US President Obama’s sporadic efforts to ‘reset’ the relationship with Russia – an effort that, again, notwithstanding recent Moscow-Washington tensions related to Syria, may be said to have resulted in the 2010 New START Treaty, whereby both countries committed to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Cooperating on the Arctic may well have facilitated progress on the nuclear issue, as a 2009 cable sent by the US ambassador in Moscow, and later released by Wikileaks, explained: “Our continued support of the Arctic Council and bilateral engagement on the Arctic […] can help bolster the moderates [in the Kremlin] and give incentives to the GOR [Government of Russia] to continue cooperation.”

What of Canada in this emerging cooperative Arctic logic? In Moscow, a map produced by the Canadian Department of Natural Resources has pride of place in Arctic Ambassador Anton Vasiliev’s office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The choice of wall decor reflects the fact that Canada is manifestly an important Arctic country. Still, that importance is based almost entirely on geography: Canada cannot compete militarily with Russia or the US, and has done little to seriously develop its economic and diplomatic power in the Arctic. It lacks roads and pipelines connecting southern Canada to the Arctic coast, and has just one railway line to Churchill (Manitoba), on Hudson Bay. Its only other Arctic port is a neglected wharf located at an abandoned mine at Nanisivik, on northern Baffin Island. Canada also has a glaring shortage of adequate Arctic airports, search-and-rescue capabilities, and navigation charts – while poor social, health and education conditions have resulted in a largely unemployable local workforce.

Although Canada should be developing itself into an Arctic gateway, it has kept that door firmly shut. To be sure, Canada was pivotal in the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996. And yet its diplomatic potential on northern matters has in recent years been hamstrung by inconsistent federal support for a sustained, credible northern push and strategy, as well as by the manipulation of Arctic projects for populist domestic ends at the expense of strategic consequence. Unlike Moscow, Ottawa has been slow to negotiate its Arctic boundary disputes. Indeed, it was not until 2012 that Ottawa and Copenhagen announced an agreement in principle on the location of the boundary in the Lincoln Sea. Another relatively large boundary dispute remains in the Beaufort Sea between Canada and the US – a dispute that should, in principle, be easy to resolve, given that the two countries share a common energy market under NAFTA (which reduces the stakes). In short, the other Arctic countries have increasingly bypassed Canada in addressing northern issues. Even negotiations on sub-strategic matters like search and rescue, shipping safety, oil spill response, fisheries management, and short-lived climate forcers like black carbon have been led by the US – often in partnership with Russia.

What of China’s Arctic posture? China has just received observer status in the Arctic Council, with the Chinese government publicly affirming its deference to “the Arctic States’ right to administer the Arctic Ocean under the Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The Middle Kingdom has a voracious appetite for oil, gas and minerals. It also has the world’s largest shipping fleet, and is well positioned to take advantage of shorter routes across an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean. Beijing does not contest the rights of the Arctic Ocean coastal states to oil and gas resources on the continental shelves. Indeed, it relies on the exact same rules to support its claims in the South and East China Seas – even if its claims in the latter theatres have been held by many Southeast Asian states and Japan to be overinclusive and aggressive. Finally, China also knows that offshore oil and gas are expensive to find, extract and transport – especially in remote and inhospitable regions – and that it is increasingly well positioned to provide the necessary capital and markets.

Already, Chinese state-owned companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in Western Canada’s oil sands, and are importing vast quantities of Russian raw materials via the Trans-Siberian Railway. In 2010, the Chinese government advanced US $25 billion to Russia’s Transneft and Rosneft, so that these companies could build an oil pipeline from Siberia to China. The pipeline is now complete and carries some 300,000 barrels per day. In 2013, China advanced another US $60 billion to Rosneft so that it could explore and develop the oil and gas potential of the Arctic offshore.

Beyond the Arctic Ocean coastal states’ possible continental shelf claims, near the centre of the Arctic Ocean, are the two small areas of deep seabed that may constitute the ‘common heritage of mankind.’ In these areas, any nation can seek and receive a permit for deep seabed mining from the International Seabed Authority, the regulatory body established under UNCLOS. China might at some point wish to explore the deep Arctic Ocean for resources like magnesium nodules or frozen gas hydrates, and has every right to do so.

Most of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, creating a strategic weakness referred to as the ‘Malacca dilemma.’ Other ships loop around Africa to avoid the pirate-infested approaches to the Suez Canal, or around South America because they cannot fit through the Panama Canal. Either way, the extra distance adds costs in fuel, salaries and foregone business. The Northern Sea Route offers Chinese shipping companies a 10,000-kilometre shortcut to Europe, while the Northwest Passage offers a 7,000-kilometre shortcut to the eastern US. With time, a third route will become available – ‘over the top,’ as it were – across the Central Arctic Ocean. These developments are anticipated and celebrated in China, where the media refer to the Northern Sea Route as the ‘Arctic Golden Waterway.’ Indeed, Professor Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University has estimated that the Northern Sea Route could save China as much as US $60 to $120 billion per annum.

In preparation, Chinese companies are already building ice-strengthened ships and tankers. Some of these ships and tankers have dual-directional technology that enables them to use a high-efficiency bow in the open seas, then turn round and use an icebreaking stern – and the increased water flow generated by the proximity of the propellers – to almost chew through sea-ice.

Of course, Chinese shippers using the Arctic routes will still need – and know full well that they will need – assistance from Arctic countries. Although the sea-ice is disappearing, the Arctic remains difficult to navigate. For instance, ‘icing’ – caused by sea spray freezing onto a ship’s frame or machinery – can result in ships becoming unstable and sinking. Inadequate maritime charts may lead to ships running aground. And great distances and extreme weather conditions can delay search-and-rescue efforts for days.

In the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage, geographic proximity makes Russia and Canada the countries most able to provide good charts, navigation aids, ports of refuge, weather and ice forecasting, search and rescue, and a police presence for the purposes of deterring and dealing with pirates, terrorists and smugglers. If they provide adequate infrastructure and services, China will almost certainly comply with reasonable laws concerning ship safety, navigation lanes, insurance coverage, and the provision of crew lists and cargo manifests to coastal authorities. As such, it is significant that the Chinese government has so far chosen not to take sides in the disputes between the US and Russia, and the US and Canada over the legal status of the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage.

At the same time, the combination of economic opportunity and scarce infrastructure presents an enticing scenario for foreign investment in the Arctic. One can easily imagine Chinese shipping companies being willing to invest in improved charts, navigation aids, ports of refuge, search and rescue, weather and ice forecasting along the Russian and Canadian coasts. One can also imagine Moscow and Ottawa embracing the opportunity to share costs – provided investors recognize, as they almost certainly would, the extensive rights of the coastal state.

The Arctic is the closest thing that there is in this early 21st century to a blank slate in international relations. Inclement conditions have to date deterred settlement, economic development and geopolitical intrigue. Climate change is changing this context dramatically. Nevertheless, the Arctic will invariably be a region where state and economic activity will, in the coming decades, carry unusually high risks and costs, providing a real incentive for state-to-state cooperation, commercial joint ventures, and other forms of burden-sharing. Arctic states and even China are, for the time being, seeing these pro-cooperation incentives quite clearly. All of which begs the question: can this cooperation be scaled up to the global level – that is, to other theatres? Is the Arctic unique as a crucible for international cooperation, or does it hint at the possible in what promises to be an exceedingly complex new century?


Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

You Might Also Enjoy This in GB