Is there really a race for the Arctic?

Despite all the noise about a race for the Arctic, there is actually a coordinated effort to govern the region.

Russian President Putin, PM Medvedev and Defence Minister Shoigu pose for a picture during visit to cave of Arctic Pilots Glacier in Alexandra Land in remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu during a visit to the cave of Arctic Pilots Glacier [Reuters]

The “race” is on. The Arctic is open for business. Thus runs the decade-old narrative on the Arctic, depicting it as a new open frontier replete with riches up for grabs.

This assumption gained momentum through confluence of a few developments between 2007 and 2008. Arctic sea ice loss was reported as the worst in recorded history, outpacing forecasted decline, which was followed by the US Geological Survey claiming that the Arctic held 13 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered conventional oil and 30 percent of its gas resources. To some this suggested that there were vast economic opportunities in the Arctic.

The idea of an Arctic race for resources was further encouraged by two Russian mini-submarines planting a flag on the seabed under the North Pole. Although Russia’s adventure to the depths of the Arctic Ocean was more of a technical feat and an effective national PR stunt, the subsequent media narrative was filled with inflamed political rhetoric and misguided coverage.

Today, the forbidding natural environment is still not allowing quick access to the much-coveted natural resources, nor to shipping routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And the “race” looks much more like an organised collaboration than a disorderly scramble.

An orderly ‘race’ 

Despite all the noise about an international race in the Arctic, governance of the region’s resources and sea-lanes is actually a coordinated effort proceeding in an orderly manner.

The Arctic region is comprised of eight states with rights and privileges afforded to all of them: the coastal states of Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States in addition to Finland, Iceland and Sweden. These states gather regularly on formal and informal bases at the Arctic Council, which was founded in 1996 as a high-level intergovernmental forum for purposes of cooperation and coordination on matters of common concern.

Decisions are made by consensus. Indigenous peoples’ organisations hold the unique position of Permanent Participants, which gives them full consultation rights in Council decision-making. In other words, Arctic states alongside northern indigenous groups function together in a relatively well-ordered fashion.

Independent of the Council, but as a function of state sovereignty, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) agreement defines the rights and responsibilities of nations regarding the world’s oceans. Under UNCLOS, coastal states are granted exclusive economic rights to any natural resources found on, or beneath the seabed extending 200 nautical miles from the shoreline. In the event of an overlapping claim Arctic coastal states have agreed to negotiate disputes peacefully. The US is yet to ratify UNCLOS.

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Much attention has also been given to vessels transiting though Arctic waters, which is yet to amount to much. At present, however, Russia’s Northern Sea Route is the most viable choice, but the Northwest Passage (NWP), located in North American waters, may be passable in the not-too-distant future. For now the NWP is limited by sea ice, the lack of infrastructure, and an ongoing friendly dispute between Canada that claims jurisdiction and the US claim that these are international waters.

But, given the speed of warming waters, and resulting international interest, standards and regulations must be set in order to deal with increased traffic. One such instrument is the long-awaited International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, which came into effect in January 2017. Notably, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment stressed the need for a Polar Code in 2009. 

The Arctic is indeed global in scope, but unfettered access is not in the cards.


Claims of Arctic proximity 

This idea of a “race”, however, did draw a good deal of international attention to the Arctic. Numerous nations expressed a keen interest in joining the Arctic Council. Under the status of Observer, non-Arctic states, NGOs and intergovernmental organisations participate with Council activities, in a limited manner.

To accommodate the growing interest of countries such as China, South Korea and India, at the 2013 Kiruna Ministerial Meeting Council members adopted the new Observer manual that governs the activities of Observer states. Recognising that an increase in Observers could affect the balance of the AC, member states developed more robust standards, including requisite recognition of the special role of the Permanent Participants.

Without doubt the Arctic is increasingly part of the global economy. However, where we see the greatest evidence of this, in my view, is in the recent development of numerous new organisations geared toward increased economic activity.

In  2014 the Arctic Economic Council (AEC) was launched during Canada’s Arctic Council chairmanship (2013-2015). Much to the credit of Canada’s Leona Aglukkaq, the first ever Inuk to chair the Arctic Council, one of her priorities was to address the very real economic challenges of Northerners.

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Noting the lack of a northern forum for addressing common issues, Aglukkaq said: “It became clear there is a gap in Arctic-to-Arctic expertise; we tend to go south for solutions.” The first chair elected to the AEC is Tara Sweeney, an Inupiat from Barrow Alaska and senior vice president of external affairs for the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Concurrent with the handover of the Arctic Council chairmanship from the US to Finland in April 2017, the AEC chair will also pass to a representative from Finland.

Whereas the Arctic Economic Council aims to address economic challenges with a strong focus on the northern voice, the Arctic Circle Assembly could be depicted as an open invitation to interested parties worldwide to exchange ideas on a wide range of issues.

Launching the Arctic Circle in 2013, Iceland’s then President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, said at a Washington DC National Press Club luncheon: “The aim of the Arctic Circle is to strengthen the policymaking process by bringing together as many Arctic and international players as possible under one large ‘open tent.'”

Held in Reykjavik, Iceland, the 2016 Assembly was well attended by more than 2,000 participants from 50 nations. But what I found most enlightening during the proceedings was the choice of words used by speakers at the opening session.    

China is “near Arctic state”, announced Gao Feng from the foreign ministry. This was not unexpected, as China has claimed this status to justify why it should be considered an Arctic stakeholder. “France, like China, is a near Arctic state,” said Laurent Mayet, Deputy Ambassador to the Polar Regions. Swiss Secretary of State Yves Rossier declared that Switzerland is a “vertical Arctic country”. But keynote speaker Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, may have topped the others when she assured the now-amused audience that Scotland is the “closest Arctic neighbour”.

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The Arctic is indeed global in scope, but unfettered access is not on the cards. In deference to the indigenous peoples who have called it home for millennia, and others whose families are now well established in the North, states should tread lightly. It’s their environment and economic needs that are paramount.

Erica Dingman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and director of Arctic in Context. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.