There is a great deal at stake in the Arctic.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and—most importantly—so are shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports, and economic growth, especially in East Asia.
NATO’s top military commander, Adm. James G. Stavridis of the United States Navy, warned in 2010 of an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict” if the world’s leaders failed to ensure Arctic peace. Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states (Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden) over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries (China, India, the European Union, and Japan) that want access.
The Russians lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows countries to claim ownership if an area is part of a country’s continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lomonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.
One hundred and sixty-eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that was seen of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crew members. Canada organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political, not archaeological: Canada is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.
Denmark and Canada are meanwhile at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.
Although it’s constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention, the United States has locked horns with Canada over the Beaufort Sea.
The Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study last year. The U.S. maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines. The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region as well, and Norway has carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.
China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Passage run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a Permanent Observer on the Arctic Council. Formed in 1996, the council consists of the border states, plus the indigenous people that populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.
The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot. Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”