March 1, 2010  

Polar frontiers

A new Arctic age is emerging. New forces are transforming the very fabric of the entire region. Some of these changes will positively benefit those people who call the region home, while some will have negative impacts. Decision-makers in the Arctic nations will need to be increasingly mindful of these changes and need to develop policies that are innovative, proactive and intelligent.

Climate change is transforming the physical nature of the north. Arctic ice is melting at a record rate. Burgeoning natural resources development is already creating new economic and environmental realities in the region. In a very short timeframe, Canada has moved from being a nondiamond producer to being the third largest producer of diamonds in the world on the strength of its Arctic mines. Oil and gas companies are preparing for large-scale exploration projects in the waters off the MacKenzie Delta into the Beaufort Sea. The entire geo-political nature of the region is also rapidly evolving. The United Nation’s Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is redrawing the boundaries of the Arctic Ocean and most of Canada’s Arctic neighbors are revitalizing their Arctic security capabilities.

The challenges of developing a rational and proactive Arctic policy are formidable. While the Arctic is changing, it is still, and will remain, a very expensive place to do business. But more problematic is the current nature of Arctic affairs. While the forces that are transforming the region are only now being appreciated, their long-term impacts are not yet understood. Change is coming, but it is not clear what that change ultimately will be. Further complicating the picture is the lack of understanding as to how these forces will interact in both the short and long term.

For Canada, one of the greatest challenges is determining what is meant by Arctic sovereignty and security. These concepts often mean different things to different people. Throughout much of the Cold War, the effort to give policy meaning to these terms was frustrated by the tendency of Canadian policymakers, media and academics to assume the two terms were separate and distinct concepts. Arctic security became associated with defense against the Soviet Union, a mission primarily left to the U.S. Canada did cooperate with the U.S. in the establishment of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and NORAD, but Canada allowed the U.S. to pay for most of these and left the maritime dimensions of Arctic security entirely in American hands. In turn, Arctic sovereignty became associated with reacting to action that Americans perceived as threatening Canada’s claim over the region, most notably the waterways of the north.

However, sovereignty and security are interconnected and cannot and should not be separated. In the modern international system, sovereignty is the ability of a government of a people to make and enforce (with deadly force if necessary) the final, authoritative decision within a territory that has a clearly defined set of borders. The existence of sovereignty is ultimately confirmed when other members of the international community accept the right of the government to make and enforce decisions within these borders. Ultimately, is it about control and the ability of a government to control what happens within a specified border.

The issue of Arctic sovereignty is complicated by the maritime dimension of the region. Within the international law of the sea, the right to make final decisions about what activities occur within maritime zones is not absolute but is modified by the nature of the waterway. Simply put, there are rules that reduce what states can do the farther one goes beyond the coastlines. With the exception of Denmark’s assertion of ownership of Hans Island, no other actors in the international system challenge Canada’s right to control its Arctic land mass. However, the challenge does emerge over Canada’s claim to its Arctic maritime space. The U.S. disagrees with how to draw the boundary line dividing the Beaufort Sea. Likewise, Denmark disagrees on how to divide the Lincoln Sea (though only in two small regions.) It is also likely that Canada will have disagreements with the U.S., Russia and Denmark in its expected claim over its continental shelf boundaries in the Arctic Ocean.

The most well-known sovereignty issue is over the control of international maritime traffic in the Northwest Passage. Canada claims that the waterways that make up the passage are internal water. This means that the Canadian government has the right to control who can enter these waters and under what conditions. The U.S. and European Union position is that these waters are part of an international strait, which means that Canada does not have final and authoritative decision-making power. The U.S. and the E.U. assert that the international community — in this case through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) — makes the final decisions.

Whether it is the issue of the Arctic Ocean seabed that is to be divided, or determining the boundaries of Canadian sections of the Beaufort and Lincoln Sea, or shipping in the Northwest Passage, the ultimate issue is control. This is where the issue of Arctic security connects with the issue of Arctic sovereignty. If sovereignty is only about Canadian decision-makers having personal satisfaction from some sense of control, then it is not worth much effort or expense. But if sovereignty is being pursued for the purposes of protecting the security, safety and well-being of Canadians, then not only is it worth the effort, but it is an absolute necessity.

Complicating the issue of sovereignty and security is the fact that the Arctic geopolitical reality is developing in ways that are confounding and complicating to all states that border the region. Though geopolitical concerns reduced immediately after the Cold War and the threat level is nebulous and low for now, climate change is causing uncertainty as the Arctic becomes (and is perceived to be) more accessible. The main issue is the realization that the UNCLOS allows most of the Arctic nations to claim much of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. Under the terms of Article 76, the states that believe they have a continental shelf first need to conduct the science to determine if their belief has merit. They then need to submit their findings to a U.N. commission that will pass judgment on the merit on their studies. It is then the responsibility of the state to peacefully resolve any overlaps they may have with any neighboring states that may also be claiming an extended continental shelf.

Even though this part of the convention was negotiated in the 1970s and the convention was finalized in 1982, it was not until the late 1990s that most of the Arctic nations realized that this article could be used to lay claim to much of the seabed of the Arctic Ocean. There has now been an explosion of activity by the Arctic states as they prepare their claims. The Russians have submitted their claim (but have been requested by the U.N. Commission on the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf to resubmit with more information), while Canada and Denmark will be doing so by 2013 and 2014, respectively. By not ratifying the convention, the U.S. remains outside the process officially, but unofficially it is also preparing a claim.

The U.S. and Russia are the most important actors in the region. The U.S. is the sole remaining superpower, but when it comes to the Arctic it acts more like a minor power, refusing to takes its circumpolar responsibilities seriously. Russia has been staging a comeback in regard to its Arctic policies, fueled by rising revenues of its export of oil and gas. This in turn is encouraging the Russians to become more assertive as they move to consolidate and expand the development of their oil and gas resources in their region of the Arctic.

The Danes are also beginning to assert their power in the north. They are an Arctic state by virtue of their control over Greenland. They are currently cooperating with the U.S. and Canada in determining the limits and the potential of oil and gas exploration within their maritime territory. The Danes have also been actively attempting to derail any effort to develop a comprehensive Arctic treaty. Officially, they believe that the existing framework is adequate for the development of Arctic relations. Unofficially, it may be that they are more concerned that a developing international Arctic treaty would affect their development of the oil and gas reserves off Greenland, or perhaps require them to take a harder line against the fishers of Greenland and Faeroes Islands who allegedly are increasingly entering Canadian waters illegally.

The Norwegians are also now focusing both their foreign and defense policy on the Arctic. They are in the process of building a naval capability that can operate in the north, and they are looking to develop oil and gas reserves in “their” Arctic with positive anticipation, but they are more concerned about the expected increase in Russian offshore activity.

It should be clear, then, that all in the region are attempting to understand and prepare for the new Arctic age. However, it should also be apparent that the issue of the geopolitical north is a moving and developing target. While all the main Arctic states are aware the north is evolving into a much more important region, they are not entirely certain how that is happening. But each state is developing policies that affect how the region is developing, further complicating the situation.

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that the Arctic is becoming an area of interest for non-Arctic states as well. In particular, Asian interests in the region are growing. South Korean shipyards are increasingly entering the market to build ice-capable vessels. The Japanese are investing heavily in the study of Arctic gas hydrates off the coast of Canada as a new energy source. The Chinese are also increasing their investment in polar research and have begun to deploy their large Arctic research vessels (Xue Long) to the region.

Even with such a cursory review, it should be apparent that these are complicated issues that involve competing interests in an increasingly crowded region.

Denmark, Norway, the U.S., Russia and Canada are all in the process of rebuilding combat-capable air and maritime forces and, along with Finland and Sweden, have begun or increased military operations and exercises in the Arctic region. All five states also have been releasing much more assertive foreign and defense policy stances since 2007.

So, despite public pronouncements of their desire to cooperate in the region, all of the Arctic states have begun the process of strengthening their armed forces’ abilities to operate in the region. It is therefore correct to ask the question whether we are headed into an Arctic arms race. Even if one takes the view that the threat of an arms race is just that, a threat, Arctic nations must either take robust diplomatic efforts to short-circuit that threat, or they must develop more robust and capable northern armed forces. AFJ

ROB HUEBERT is associate professor at the Department of Political Science and Associate Director at the Center for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.