CWA Commentary

Photo Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia
   NIAS Course on Global Politics
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)
Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore
For any further information or to subscribe to GP alerts send an email to
Print Bookmark

CWA # 10, 18 May 2018

Global Politics
Arctic: The Strategic Significance

  Divyabharathi E

There is potential for both cooperation and conflict in the Arctic, depending on perspective and focus. Many critical problems have been resolved, either within the framework of international treaties like the UNCLOS of 1982 and bodies like the Arctic Council or in bilateral negotiations

The Arctic is increasingly becoming an area of geo-political, geo-economic and geo-ecological interest. Climate change resulting from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is causing rapid warming and melting of ice in the Arctic. This makes areas in the North Polar Region with raw materials potential increasingly accessible for economic exploitation and development. However, the economic opportunities come with high risks for the Arctic’s ecosystems.

The Arctic icecap is melting and scientists are uncertain how this will affect ecosystems.At the same time considerable deposits of oil and gas are believed to exist in the Arctic. Debate has evolved around who shall extract the oil when the ice disappears, and who shall control the new shipping routes that are opening up. Will conflict emerge among states – is a “scramble” for the Arctic underway?

New strategic environments

Several factors contribute to increased concern about the Arctic – the shrinking ice cap with new shipping routes and easier access to resources; technological advances in the extraction of resources from deep sea and under extreme weather conditions; legal developments that allow for an extension of sovereign rights into the polar basin. These developments have increased the economic and geopolitical stakes in the region. Generally political tension is low in the Arctic, since all parties comply with the UNCLOS. This means that most unprospected resources are under national jurisdiction, with procedural agreement on the handling of claims. The U.S. has not ratified the convention, but has agreed to comply with it.

Maritime and territorial disputes

The climate for stability and cooperation in the Arctic stands in contrast to the tense situation during the Cold War. Still there is a potential for disagreement and rivalry connected to unresolved questions of jurisdiction and crossed interests over transport routes and resources. The rich fishing grounds are fairly well known, while there is more uncertainty about the location of oil, gas and minerals. Exploitation will be costly even though the ice is receding. Furthermore there are debates about security alertness, patrolling, and formal authority in many of the contested areas.

 A “scramble” for the Arctic?

 There are prospects for considerable new petroleum findings in the Arctic, but most of these will probably lie in areas where national jurisdiction is undisputed (and those located in what might remain of disputed areas are the least interesting commercially). Yes, jurisdiction of the Arctic continental shelf is not yet finally established, but there is an on-going process under the UN of settling the outer limits of the continental shelf, to which all Arctic nations adhere (and to which potentially strong non-Arctic actors, such as China, have declared that they will also adhere). Above all, there have been hardly any signs of political conflict in the Arctic, and good reason to assume that states see cooperation as their primary choice in the future as well.

There is potential for both cooperation and conflict in the Arctic, depending on perspective and focus. Many critical problems have been resolved, either within the framework of international treaties like the UNCLOS of 1982 and bodies like the Arctic Council or in bilateral negotiations, like the maritime delimitation between Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea. Some issues might lead to increased tension if conditions in some of the major powers develop unfavourably.

The geopolitical importance is again increasing. Climate change, technological advances and the quest for resources are the major drivers of change. The Arctic is an expansion field for national sovereignty in the quest for resources and passage. The geopolitical status of the High North is being transformed from outer to an inner crescent – a strategic zone with new modes of cooperation, but also with international disagreement over maritime areas and access routes beyond the circumpolar land area.

Divyabharathi E is currently pursuing Masters in International Studies in Stella Maris College, Chennai.

Print Bookmark

Other CWA Publications

Global Politics
June 2021 | CWA # 497

Gurpreet Singh

India and the geopolitics of supply chainsĀ 

read more
June 2021 | CWA # 496

Chetna Vinay Bhora

Spain, Morocco and the rise of rightwing politics in Europe over immigration

read more
Southeast Asia
June 2021 | CWA # 495

Anju Joseph

Timor Leste: Instability continues, despite 19 years of independence

read more
The World This Week
June 2021 | CWA # 494

GP Team

G7, NATO and Biden-Putin summits, and the Iran elections

read more
Conflict Weekly 75
June 2021 | CWA # 493


Three new reports on Child labour, Ethiopia and Xinjiang, Tensions in Belfast, and the Suu Kyi trial

read more
The World This Week
June 2021 | CWA # 492

GP Team

G7 Summit, China's new anti-foreign sanctions law, Peru Elections, and France's Sahel exit

read more
Conflict Weekly 74
June 2021 | CWA # 491


The UN report on Taliban-al Qaeda links, Denmark on relocating refugee camps, Burkino Faso massacre, Arctic melt, and Afghan trilateral dialogue

read more
China's new dams in the Yarlung Tsangpo
June 2021 | CWA # 490

Sarthak Jain

India should invest in technology to meet China's water challenge

read more
Nepal's Political Crisis
June 2021 | CWA # 489

Sourina Bej

Fresh election-call mean unending cycle of instability

read more
June 2021 | CWA # 488

Vibha Venugopal

The return of Taliban will be bad news for women

read more
Supply Chain Resilience Initiative
June 2021 | CWA # 487

Dincy Adlakha

The SCRI will fail before it takes off, for three reasons

read more
Israel-Palestine Conflict
June 2021 | CWA # 486

Udbhav Krishna P

Revisiting the recent violence: Three takeaways

read more
Taiwan, the US and China
June 2021 | CWA # 485

Joeana Cera Matthews

For the Economist, Taiwan is the most dangerous place. The argument is complicated

read more
China and Australia
June 2021 | CWA # 484

Keerthana Rajesh Nambiar

Beijing's suspension of the economic dialogue with Australia will cost China more.

read more
COVID and the Vaccine Diplomacy
June 2021 | CWA # 483

Julia Mathew

Though the US is late to the race, it has an edge. Three reasons why

read more
The US and North Korea
June 2021 | CWA # 482

Dhanushaa P

Between "strategic patience" and "grand bargain," Biden's policy options on Pyongyang are limited

read more

Click below links for year wise archive
2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018