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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.

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