The Arctic is the northernmost region of the world. The region mostly contains water in the form of sea-ice, glaciers, icebergs, etc. The average summer temperature hovers around 0°C and dips down to -30°C when sun sets for 6 months in the winters. The northern parts of the Scandinavian countries, Russia, Canada, Greenland (an autonomous territory of Denmark) and the US state – Alaska fall into this region. Needless to say, most of the region lies uninhabited due to its cold and hostile environment. Therefore, intuitively one might conclude that there would be no territorial disputes in the Arctic. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Countries in this region have been increasingly showing interest in the region. With the melting of the ice caps due to climate change, the peace of the region also appears to be melting. Russia has been actively trying to assert dominance over this region. This article explores some of the underlying reasons for these rising interests in the arctic. It also looks at how the indistinct, neglected, and blurred borders are becoming increasingly influential in contemporary geopolitics.
The Majestic Arctic
The Arctic is one of the most serene places on earth. Its beautiful landscapes make it a very popular tourist destination. Apart from this, it has large geological and economic importance. It has humongous deposits of oil, natural gas, rare earth mineral and gemstone deposits. Geologists believe, it houses about 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its oil. The value of these resources run into billions of US Dollars. Climate Change in progressively enabling the access of the regional states to these riches. Melting sea-ice also aids large vessels to move through, opening up several trade routes between Asia, Europe and North America. This adds to the economic importance of the Arctic. Traditionally, because of the inaccessibility of the region, states didn’t care much about their borders in the region. They remained blurred and undefined up until recently when the economic activity started mounting. Now there appears to be a sudden need for demarcating the state borders in the region, making the tranquil seas increasingly turbulent.
It’s been about a century since the first territorial claim was made by Canada in 1925 and then followed by the Soviets in 1937. It was moderately contested as the waters were mostly inaccessible and the claim was only towards the respective airspaces. Tensions started to appear with the enforcement of United Nation Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) in 1994. UNCLOS entitles states to something called the ‘Exclusive Economic Zones’ (or EEZs) which lied within 200 nautical miles from the coast. States could carry out all kinds of exploration and other activities within their EEZs. However, this wasn’t substantial until recently when climate change made EEZs accessible. EEZs could also be extended up to boundaries of the continental shelf that extends from the state’s coastline, once they scientifically determine its extent and get it approved by the UN. This has led to several claims made by states, often overlapping – out of which two (by Norway and Iceland) have been approved as of Oct 2017. Russia and Norway had a four-decade-long dispute over the Barents Sea, a 175,000 sq km area (half the size of Germany), north of Kola Peninsula in Russia. They resolved the dispute peacefully in 2010, dividing the area equally between each other, setting an example for the world. This put pressure on the US and Canada to resolve their dispute over the Beaufort Sea, located north of the Alaska-Canada border. Despite both states assert sovereign control over the disputed region by placing moratoriums on commercial fishing, etc., neither country has taken any steps towards resolving the issue. Hence, so far, regardless of multiple territorial claims, the region has remained largely peaceful.
The heat has been building in the Arctic both literally and figuratively. As climate change opens up newer regions of the ocean, states exert diplomatic push to exercise control over them. One of the key players in the region has to be Russia. Almost half of the Arctic is surrounded by the Russian coastline. Russia claims territory up to the North Pole based on its continental shelf. It overlaps with the Danish claim quite significantly. In 2007, Russia went as far as to plant its flag on the sea-bed under the North Pole. They have been reopening, fortifying and building several strategic and military outposts and airfields off their costs into the Arctic.
Russian activities in Svalbard are also of great interest. Svalbard is a tiny Norwegian island, mid-way to the North Pole from continental Norway. Article 3 of the Svalbard Treaty signed in 1920, allows the signatories to exploit the land for economic gains however, according to article 9 prohibits any kind of military establishment on the land. This has allowed Russia to set up a coal mine on the island. It has kept the mine running despite huge losses incurred simply in order to maintain a presence in the region, so in case any development happens in the region, Russia has a bargaining chip in it.
However, with the coal business slowly losing public interest, Russia has moved to tourism – a newer and more sustainable economic activity. It is renovating structures, city halls and building infrastructure to attract tourists. It is a way of not only sustaining its economic activity but also reify the Russian identity and culture in the region. This is the ultimate form of soft power, exhibited on a Norwegian island, laying ground for it to metamorphize into hard military power if required. Although Russia seems to be playing by the book now, its proactive actions paint an entirely different picture.
It appears that the treaties and norms upholding peace in the Arctic are incompatible with the physical realities of the region. The blurred borders which were often forgotten are becoming increasingly important. States who once solved propagated peaceful negotiations over disputes are acting in their self-interests to monopolise over the buttload of resources which are now becoming accessible. Hence, the melting ice is also indicative of the fast melting peace in the region. At this pace, it doesn’t seem long before the water goes above everyone’s head, sinking the Arctic under these megalomaniacal world powers.
Deepanshu Singal is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University with a keen interest in Economics and International Relations.