The world powers seem to have found a new casualty to exploit. The Arctic oceanic region is increasingly catching the world powers’ attention. Canada, Denmark, Russia, Norway and the U.S. – all have been registering their candidacy to ownership of the Arctic oceanic region, which is believed to hold huge oil and natural gas resources.
Arctic Ocean is located around the North Pole. The ocean is surrounded by landmasses of the above mentioned five states. It is the smallest ocean in the world. Nevertheless, it is equal to the size of Russia.
The importance of the region
The global warming is global phenomena causing much damage to the resources of the globe, making life of the living beings, including human, miserable. This global warming has caused the weather of different regions to change (climate change) drastically and disproportionately. Ice are melting rapidly in the ice-covered regions, raising the water level of the oceans and seas and, at the same time, clearing the ice-covered areas from ice. Landscapes may be found in these areas, at sometime, after the ice is gone. These areas may be used, even if no or less land is found, as source of energy extraction and source of food. Other natural resources would also be exposed for exploitation. Such possibilities are making these regions, including the Arctic oceanic region, seriously “to-be” beneficial destination for the global elites.
Since the Arctic oceanic region was inaccessible because of the layers of thick ice, there were less territorial disputes until the beginning of this century. However, the rapid melting of ice in the oceanic region is making it a more accessible zone for commercial fishing, fresh water, minerals, coal, iron, copper, oil, gas, and shipping. The estimates that the Arctic could hold oil reserves at 13 per cent of the global total of undiscovered oil, and 30 per cent of natural gas, and also other precious metals have paved the way for disputes. The ice of the region is already reduced by as much as 50% from 1950s. The Arctic region is warming faster than other areas across the globe. Climate change would make the extraction of oil and gas from the Arctic much easier. The melting of the summer sea ice has also opened up trade routes between Asia and Europe via the top of the world. In 2007, the Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans opened for a first time in memory.
The Arctic region disputes
There are plenty of disputes going centring the Arctic oceanic region. There are disputes between the U.S. and Canada regarding boundaries in the Beaufort Sea and the status of the Northwest Passage; between Canada and Denmark (via Greenland) regarding Hans Island; among Canada, Denmark and Russia regarding the Lomonosov Ridge– a mountain range across the Arctic Ocean; and between the U.S. and Russia regarding the maritime border from the Bering Sea into the Arctic Ocean. Therefore, all Arctic states are involved in disputes over who owns parts of the Arctic Ocean.
Alongwith the Arctic states, China and the UK are also involved in the dispute regarding the Svalbard archipelago, which happens to be within the Arctic periphery. Denmark and Norway have made submissions to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) regarding their claims in the Arctic. Russia’s first claim to the UN in 2002 was sent back for lack of evidence. Russia made a second bid, which contains more data.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is the international legal framework for the world’s oceans, no State has the right to independently utilize natural resources of the seabed beyond the 200 nautical miles (from the coastline) Exclusive Economic Zone, unless the coastal State proves that the respective resources lie within its continental shelf.
So far, Russia and Norway are the only States that have submitted an ‘extended continental shelf’ claim to the CLCS. Even if the CLCS receives, in future, applications from the four UNCLOS signatory Arctic states, except the non-signatory U.S, its decisions will not provide a final and binding resolution of all Arctic disputes. This is because (i) the CLCS is not a platform that is capable of providing final and binding solutions (Article 9 UNCLOS Annex II), and (ii) the U.S. is not a member of UNCLOS and, therefore, not bound by its provisions. Thus, there is no legal mechanism that is binding in nature in order to determine maritime boundaries between coastal States or to settle disputes, unless the Arctic States explicitly accept it.
Since a binding legal regime is absent to solve Arctic disputes, the increasing accessibility to the Arctic oceanic region creates scopes for intense territorial disputes concerning the control of the resources in the region.
Trying other means
Norwegian foreign secretary Jonas Gahr Stoere already expressed that the presence of military, naval forces and coastguard in the region is necessary.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made strong statements that with regard to Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic, Canada has a choice, either to use it or lose it. He firmly said that his government is going to use it. Canada planned deep water naval facility at Nanisivik, which lies at the entrance to the Northwest Passage. There were overlapping promises by the Canadian ruling party in recent past about building armed ice-breakers, six to eight patrol ships that could operate in moderate ice conditions and five or six vessels in order to proceed towards gripping the Arctic. In 2011, Canada conducted large-scale military exercises in the region.
In 2007, Russian scientists dived to the seabed in the North Pole and planted a titanium Russian flag there in order to beef up their claims. Russia has already moved to restore a Soviet-era military base and other military outposts in the Arctic. Earlier this year Russia stepped up Arctic military patrols from its Northern Fleet, involving 38,000 servicemen, more than 50 surface ships and submarines and 110 aircrafts.
On 17th August, 2015, the U.S. permitted Shell to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, which falls within the periphery of Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Coast Guard has already deployed sophisticated ships, aircrafts and other maritime assets in the Alaskan Arctic for the duration of Shell’s drilling up in the Arctic. Through such presence, the U.S. is trying not only to exploit energy resources of the Arctic oceanic region, but also to keep its military presence deep into the region.
Military competition is likely to increase with almost all the states urging for increasing their deployments and exercises, and there appears little opportunity for diplomatic resolution of the disputes. More interestingly, Russia is currently planning to jointly explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic fields with China, which is increasingly becoming a strong military power besides its image as economic giant. Though such move, Russia is trying to make sure that Russia has a rising military power like China involved into its stake in the Arctic oceanic region so that such cooperation favours Russia at the time of escalation of any military conflict.
The U.S. permitted Shell to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea. The closest deep water port available to the Alaskan Arctic Shell drilling crew is approximately 900 miles away in Dutch Harbour, making the ability to respond to an environmental disaster almost impossible. Shell does not have a good reputation in terms of maintaining safety of environment both in the same Chukchi Sea and Nigeria’s Ogoniland. Moreover, the overall history of oil extraction in waters is full of oil-spilling into the water, damaging the environment and costing the life of species living in the water. Drilling in Arctic poses a grave risk to the region’s marine life, especially given the technical difficulties and environmental risks of extracting oil and gas from offshore Arctic fields.
As of yet, the Arctic oceanic region is largely untouched by mankind. However, with the ice caps melting, access to the Arctic oil and gas reserves, which is estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, will be easier – a prediction that has already sparked a rush for ownership. However, given the limited scope of the UN’s findings and the non-binding nature of the UN’s decisions, it can be well presumed that without political agreement, the current scientific and legal debate over the Arctic could turn into a violent confrontation.
It seems our globe does not lack reasons to engage in chaos. The first world war began as a European conflict, only to turn gradually into a world war. We all know that the real reason behind the two world wars were to ensure economic superiority. The capitalist powers urged for maximum economic gain at their respective ends by attempting to destroy their adversaries. If the Arctic oceanic region disputes are not resolved quickly, the consequences of such disputes could result in a larger military conflict that would not just involve the Arctic states, but would also drag a larger part of the world into this dispute.
And for sure, the start of such war would mean the cold, yet beautiful, Arctic region would become the targets of war machines of the global military elites – destroying the environment of the region and the globe.
Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst, and writes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Also a campaigner for environmental and social awareness, Bahauddin Foizee occasionally writes on environment and refugee issues.