Tag Archives: North-east passage

Dividing the Arctic

Hans Island (dispute between Denmark and Canada).  Image from wikipedia

Singapore has applied for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. This is made up of the eight states that have territory within the Arctic circle: the United States, Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faroes), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. But Singapore sits at the equator, as far from either pole as it is possible to be. How can it be interested?

The answer is that in 2012, as the summer ice melted, 46 ships sailed through Arctic waters, according to Arctis, a research group, mostly from Far Eastern ports to Europe. They carried 1.2m tonnes of cargo, a third more than in 2011. This “northern route” could erode Singapore’s position as a global shipping hub. And the melting of the Greenland glaciers could threaten its existence: Singapore’s highest point, Bukit Timah, is only 164m (538ft) above sea level.

Other non-Arctic countries queuing for various kinds of seat at the table are China, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea, as well as the European Union, Greenpeace and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Their applications—supposed to be ruled on in May—are the clearest signs of the growing geopolitical interest in the melting north. The existing members are wondering whether the outsiders will promote stability or disruption.

Even the current arrangements have attracted excited speculation. According to the United States Geological Survey, the Arctic has 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its gas (the gas estimate is pre-shale, so is probably too high)…Boundary disputes rumble between America and Canada over the Beaufort Sea; between Russia and America in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, and between Canada and Denmark over Hans Island and in the Lincoln Sea. Russia is modernising its northern fleet; America is thinking about putting armed coastguard vessels into its Arctic waters. The South China Sea shows how minor territorial disputes can flare dangerously, especially when natural resources are at stake….

All countries play by the rules. Legal norms are well established. The United Nations Law of the Sea, for example, has put almost all unprospected oil, gas and minerals under national jurisdictions, narrowing the scope for dispute (America has not ratified it, but says it will abide by it). Despite some swagger and stunts in past years, Russia is playing a constructive role, especially on shipping: it wants the “northern route” to be a success. In 2010 it settled a territorial dispute with Norway.

The Arctic Council epitomises this spirit of increasing co-operation. It began in 1996, mainly as a research project and talking-shop, but is fast becoming a decision-making body. In 2011 its members signed their first treaty, on joint search-and-rescue missions, which are too expensive for countries to undertake on their own. A second treaty—on cleaning up oil spills—will be signed shortly. On January 21st the members set up the first permanent secretariat, at Tromso in northern Norway.

One fear—especially in Canada—is that economic development could bring an oil spill that could devastate the pristine Arctic environment for decades. But a bigger question is what effect the newcomers might have on these cosy arrangements. Could China one day decide the northern sea route had become so important that it was within its sphere of strategic interest—meaning Chinese submarines would appear in Arctic waters? Such fears are far-fetched. The driving force of the outsiders’ interest is economic. China and others are backing the established rules and institutions such as the Arctic Council, not undermining them.  Yet worries persist. The insiders are squabbling about the right role for the outsiders. Canada is relaxed about China’s application to join the council, but fears the EU will try to stop its native peoples hunting seals (though the EU has a limited exemption for the Inuit). Russia is happy for the EU to join but is suspicious of letting in the Chinese.

China is also affecting the domestic policies of some Arctic countries, rather as it has in Africa. For instance, Greenland governs its own internal affairs, but Denmark runs its foreign policy. It contains about a tenth of the world’s deposits of rare-earth minerals. China, with a third or more of the rest, wants to build a big mine there to keep control over the global business. Uranium will be a by-product, but responsibility for disposing of that is considered a matter of foreign policy, residing in Copenhagen. Denmark has no experience of uranium recycling, and little desire to start.

Greenland’s government is also backing a $2.5 billion iron mine (by London Mining, the Isua Project) which, if it went ahead, would be worth more than the island’s annual GDP and could attract as many as 5,000 Chinese workers (how? London Mining is to work with). In December 2012 the local government exempted such large projects from Denmark’s strict labour laws. But Chinese workers in Greenland would still need visas, which must be issued in Copenhagen. Denmark could therefore face the unwelcome choice between scuppering a pet project of huge, poor Greenland’s or undermining its own labour laws.  For the foreseeable future China and others are unlikely to challenge the rules that underwrite Arctic stability. But the outsiders’ impact may be more disruptive than their self-restraint would suggest.

Outsiders in the Arctic: The roar of ice cracking, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 49

See also Arctic Council

Arctic Council: why China, Japan, and the EU Hope to Join

“The Arctic is hot,” says Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador who will chair the Arctic Council meeting in Stockholm on March 28th-29th. The other members are America, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Russia, plus six non-voting representatives of indigenous Arctic peoples such as Sami and Inuit.   he top of the world is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of it: water in the Fram Strait, between Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, is roughly 3.5°C warmer than a century ago. When dark, absorptive seawater replaces bright, reflective ice, it retains more heat. That speeds global warming. Largely as a result, the Arctic now has less sea-ice, for the time of year, than for millennia. Most scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to begin to be largely ice-free in summer sometime between 2020 and 2050.

As the ice retreats, rich Arctic deposits of oil, gas and other minerals become accessible. High commodity prices make them lucrative. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic has around a quarter of the world’s undiscovered and recoverable oil and gas reserves.

New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes will sharply cut the distance between Europe and Asia. In 2011 a Russian supertanker, aided by two nuclear icebreakers, became the first such vessel to traverse the North-east Passage across the Arctic, hugging the Siberian coastline (Russians call it the “northern route”). Countries that ply global trade lanes, and make the ships that do, see the potential. China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, plus Italy, have applied to join the Arctic Council as observers; so has the European Union.

That, too, has generated some heat. A Norwegian newspaper reported in January that Norway was threatening to block China’s bid for observer status, part of a row that started when the Oslo-based Nobel prize committee awarded the 2010 peace prize to a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. All sides deny that (and Norway, like the other Nordic countries, is generally an enthusiast for enlargement). But officials in Oslo are not the only ones with mixed feelings about Chinese membership. Russia, which owns half the Arctic coastline and the lion’s share of the region’s resources, is also reluctant. Canada, which displays distinctive robustness on Arctic issues, is not minded to admit the EU, which tiresomely bemoans the annual seal slaughter.

Sweden says it wants to settle the observer issue by May 2013. The ostensible ground for delay is over the newcomers’ role. But it already seems that this will be limited to watching and listening—as it is for the six existing observers: countries like Britain and Poland with long traditions of Arctic activity. No Arctic country is in a hurry to expand the club. Despite excited predictions of a dangerous scramble for Arctic resources, the region’s sovereignty is fairly clearly defined. The Arctic is the polar opposite of Antarctica, figuratively as well as literally. It is not a disputed land mass surrounded by ocean. It is an ocean plus some almost entirely delimited land. It has no need of an international treaty like the one that governs Antarctica.

A handful of disputes rumble on: about a few rocks located between Greenland (a Danish fief) and Canada; and between Canada and America over the status of the North-west Passage shipping route. A bigger row could yet erupt over continental shelves, most of which are being slowly delimited under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. But all these squabbles are between the Arctic countries themselves, not with outsiders.

The members think their club is working rather well as it is. Founded in 1996, partly to promote joint scientific research, it focuses on activities such as pollution, marine conservation and mapping. It does this well. Last year members signed their first legally binding agreement, on search-and-rescue missions. Next will be a deal on responding to oil spills. Russia, which caused a flurry of concern in 2007, when an explorer called Artur Chilingarov planted his country’s flag under the North Pole, is now oozing amity. In 2011 it ended one of the Arctic’s longest-running disputes, by reaching agreement over its maritime border with Norway.

Reassured that they have little to squabble over, Arctic countries are finding that the enormous costs of research, policing and energy exploration are better shared. Hence, for example, the eagerness of Russia’s state-owned energy companies to form joint ventures, such as that agreed last year between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil in the Kara Sea. The development of Arctic shipping-lanes will also be made easier with good regional relations: there is talk of either Iceland or Norway developing a transshipment port to serve Russia’s north-eastern route.

The message is clear: welcome to the new world of the warming Arctic. But remember who runs it.

Arctic Politics: Cosy amid the thaw, Economist, March 24,2012, at 61