Looming Resource

For a few brief weeks in the summer of 2008, it seemed that everyone's worst fears for the future were being realized with an alarming rapidity. The price of oil surged, reaching new heights that just months before would have been unthinkable even to the most reckless Wall Street trader. Across the world demonstrators took to the streets, demanding immediate government action to alleviate the crippling financial burden that the increase imposed. Tens of thousands of Spanish truckers blocked roads, turning back traffic at the French border and creating 12-mile queues outside Madrid and Barcelona while their counterparts in France, Portugal and Italy quickly followed their example. Other protests were much more violent. Eighteen demonstrators were injured in Jakarta when the police used water cannons and truncheons against a furious mob that had gathered outside Parliament, and there were also violent protests in Nepal, Haiti and Malaysia.

At the same time, global stocks of rice were slumping to their lowest levels for 30 years, causing panic, disorder and eventually violence in those parts of the world where rice is a staple food. City streets in places as far apart as Haiti and Morocco, Uzbekistan and Yemen, were thronged with violent mobs protesting about the price rise.1 Fears over the potential impact of the rice crisis were heightened even more when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicted a serious shortfall over the coming years, and the President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, estimated that 'thirty-three countries around the world face potential social unrest because of the acute hike in food and energy prices'.2

Such scenes may offer a revealing glimpse of tomorrow's world, in which global demand will continue to grow for diminishing resources. In particular, pessimists argue that this is why future 'resource wars' could so easily break out. According to this viewpoint, as fears of future energy shortages grow and commodity prices rise, despite their massive setbacks in the global economic downturn that began in 2008, then so too will the temptation grow for governments to resort to military force and seize the world's diminishing natural resources for themselves. And the bitter civil wars that are being fought in some parts of the world, notably West Africa, are said to illustrate the bloody outcome of such a scenario.

This was the gloomy conclusion of a report, Climate Change and International Security, that was published by the European Union in March 2008. Authored at the highest levels of government in Brussels, it argued that 'more disputes over land and maritime borders and other territorial rights are likely' as a result of climate change and in particular claimed that:

one of the most significant potential conflicts over resources arises from intensified competition over access to, and control over, energy resources. That in itself is, and will continue to be, a cause of instability. However, because much of the world's hydrocarbon reserves are in regions vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and because many oil and gas producing states already face significant social economic and demographic challenges, instability is likely to increase. This has the potential to feed back into greater energy insecurity and greater competition for resources. A possible wider use of nuclear energy for power generation might raise new concerns about proliferation, in the context of a non-proliferation regime that is already under pressure. As previously inaccessible regions open up due to the effects of climate change, the scramble for resources will intensify.3

The report continues to say that the Arctic presents one real source of tension because its energy resources are 'changing the geo-strategic dynamics of the region with potential consequences for international stability and European security interests'. It added that 'the resulting new strategic interests are illustrated by the recent planting of the Russian flag under the North Pole'.

Other governmental papers have also painted a bleak picture. The United States Navy document, 'A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower', argued that 'climate change is gradually opening up the waters of the Arctic, not only to new resource development, but also to new shipping routes that may reshape the global transport system. While these developments offer opportunities for growth, they are potential sources of competition and conflict for access and natural resources'.4 And in March 2009, the British government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, warned that the world could face a 'perfect storm' of food, energy and water shortages within just 20 years. Speaking before a conference on sustainable development, he predicted 'a very gloomy picture' in the years ahead and argued that 'things will start to get really worrying' unless the underlying causes - massive population growth and climate change - were addressed immediately.5

Various events in the Arctic region seem to reinforce the impression that trouble is brewing. Within days of the Arctic expedition, President Putin announced his intention to resume the old Cold War practice of sending Russian planes to 'buzz' the defences of several neighbouring countries, flying as close as possible to their airspace without quite violating it. 'I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation', as he said in televised remarks, 'and our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding.'

Since then, British and Norwegian fighter jets have regularly scrambled to intercept Russian warplanes that fly close to their country's national borders, warning them not to stray any further. Strictly speaking, the Russian provocation is not a violation of international law but it does amount to what is unofficially known as a 'breach of etiquette', designed to make a point about Russia's national prestige and standing. These 'breaches of etiquette' had been a regular occurrence, almost a ritual, in the days of the Cold War, but had faded after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and had now made a comeback because Russia's coffers were filled with earnings from the export of oil. Since then its military forces have not only regularly tested the air defences of various NATO countries but also occasionally conducted low-level naval exercises in the very midst of Norway's oil and gas platforms in the North Sea and even carried out a mock bombing run against Norway's northern command centre at Bodo. Since the end of 2008 these missions have continued, even though Russia's economy has been badly affected by a dramatic drop in the price of oil, but they are still a regular occurrence: in 2008 NATO fighters scrambled to intercept 87 Russian bombers outside Norwegian territory, just one less than the previous year.6

Such 'breaches of etiquette' could conceivably be a sign of an aggressive mindset that would deliberately use military force to seize control of Arctic resources. Certainly some countries in the region consider the prospect of armed confrontation over the Arctic to be a real one. In 2008, the Norwegian media obtained a copy of a leaked report from the chief of the armed forces that considers just such a scenario, quoting General Sverre Diesen of the Norwegian military as saying that there was no immediate danger of war 'but there are grey zones'.7 The previous year Diesen had spoken in terms more reminiscent of the Cold War when he said that 'under certain circumstances there is undoubtedly room for the possible use of military power' and added that 'the use of limited military operations in support of political demands, or the use of military power as part of a broader political crisis management, cannot be excluded in our neighbouring areas'.8

The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, also admitted that such actions were a cause of alarm: 'I'm less concerned with the US, who, while not formally acknowledging our claim (over disputed parts of the Arctic), at least acknowledges that we make the claim and cooperates with us on the defence of North America. I think the greater worry is some of the other nations that we believe have been paddling around up there and not necessarily acknowledging their obligations to communicate with the government of Canada.'9 The American response has hitherto been fairly muted but there are signs of change. In January 2009 the White House released a presidential directive on the Arctic region, and a few months before had announced plans to deploy an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone or 'Predator', along its northern borders with a view to stationing 'several more' in the region by the end of 2010. At the same time the director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, visited Alaska to assess the coast guard's operations there.

Some other developments have scarcely been more reassuring. In the summer of 2008, a Russian military chief, Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, emphasized that his armed forces would have to be ready for combat operations in the Arctic - 'modern wars are often won and lost long before they start' - and would fight to defend the areas that Russia claimed formed part of its continental shelf.10 At the same time, the Russian navy resumed its patrols of the seas around the Svalbard archipelago, an area of dispute between Moscow and Oslo. Although there had been no activity by Russia's military in this region since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its naval commanders stated their plans to increase military activity in these waters, and the heavy Northern Fleet vessel, Severomorsk, moved into the seas that surround Spitsbergen Island in the summer and was joined soon after by a missile cruiser, Marshall Ustinov.11 'Periodic missions of the Northern Fleet's battle vessels will be made to Arctic areas with the necessary regularity', as a spokesman for the Russian navy rather chillingly announced.

In December 2008, the Kremlin also published the draft text of a new national security document that seemed to confirm the worst fears of many people. In one passage on the future of the world's energy resources, the draft text points out that:

international policy will focus on the access to the energy sources of the world, including the Middle East, Barents Sea, the Arctic Region, Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The struggle for the hydrocarbon resources can be developed to the military confrontation as well, which can result with violation of balance on the Russia's borders with the allies and increasing of the nuclear countries.11

Did the Kremlin mean that other countries might want to use military force to seize energy reserves and that Russia should be prepared for such an eventuality? Or were the Russians saying that they might be taking such an aggressive approach themselves? For some people such an eventuality seemed all the more likely when, three months later, Moscow announced plans to create army units in its Arctic territories that would 'guarantee military security in different military-political situations'. The formation of this new military force was incorporated in a new strategy document that declared the Arctic to be Russia's most important arena for 'international and military security' in its relations with other countries. The document also called for the creation of a new intelligence network to provide 'effective control of economic, military and (ecological) activity' in the region.13 The 'freezing temperature' units would have special ammunition, weaponry and transport and be readily deployable across the vast region.

There are several different ways in which a 'resource war' in the region could conceivably break out. The most extreme, and far-fetched, is simply when one country invades territory that indisputably belongs to another under international law, usually searching for an excuse under the terms of the United Nations Charter to justify its act of aggression.14 So if, in the future, any country enjoys overwhelming military superiority over its rival, whose natural resources it is perhaps desperate to seize, then it is plausible to argue that the Arctic could perhaps be the setting for this form of 'resource war'.

Fortunately, wars rarely break out in this way for the simple reason that very few would-be aggressors have enjoyed the military superiority to start them. It is much more usual for countries to work together and counterbalance the overwhelming power of another state. As one eminent commentator has written, it is necessary 'to acknowledge the extent to which war as a path to conflict resolution and great-power expansion has become largely obsolete'. Instead, warfare has in many cases 'truly become an option of last resort'.15

What is much more likely is that one country could use military force to seize disputed territory, or rather disputed territory whose precise legal status is unresolved. It is in this category that whole swathes of the Arctic region fall, in several quite distinct ways.

First, there are some areas where the claims of rival countries overlap, such as in the Beaufort and Barents Seas, or in a small section of territory, lying close to the North Pole, that Russia, Denmark and Canada could all claim as part of their respective continental shelves.16

Second, there are other regions that only one country can claim but which, if its legal efforts fail, would then make a tempting target for another state. For example, Canada is trying to prove that its continental shelf extends beyond its 200-mile economic zone, but if it fails to provide enough evidence then another state, such as Russia or the United States, could conceivably send warships and icebreakers to claim any section of these waters for itself.

Third, there are areas that are claimed only by one country, which could use military force when its legal and geological efforts are thwarted. If Russia should fail to demonstrate that its continental shelf extends as far north as the mission of Chilingarov and Sagalevich was designed to prove, then it could conceivably disregard international law, declare that the region forms part of its own territory and threaten to use force to back-up its claim.

Finally, a government could employ military force to assert its claims over an area that can otherwise only be 'no man's land', or what the 1982 Convention simply refers to as 'the Area' that lies 'beyond the limits of national jurisdiction'. There is one unclaimed stretch of Arctic seabed that lies beyond the theoretical maximum limits of the outer continental shelves of each of the 'Arctic Five'. It will therefore be administered as 'the common heritage of mankind' by an intergovernmental organization, the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority, which the Convention specifically established to undertake this task.17

To take one last scenario, a 'resource war' could be fought more by accident than design if international powers start to step up their military presence in any region and exchange aggressive rhetoric. In this state of mistrust, small incidents on the ground can quickly spiral out of control, leading to a much wider confrontation. This could happen even if there are no territorial disputes in the Arctic, in the same way that so many other conflicts - most obviously the First World War - began in a similar state of mistrust or 'fear'.18

A United Nations panel is due to reach a categorical decision about who owns what in the Arctic by 2020. But until the panel delivers its verdict, there is a danger that some countries could act unilaterally. Perhaps fearful that the UN could rule against them, a government could take steps to claim a disputed region for itself. Technological progress is likely to make such steps more tempting, for by 2020 the technology to extract a far higher proportion of the Arctic's oil and natural gas natural frontiers is likely to have been developed. By the late 1980s the deepest offshore operations reached around 1200 feet, and now two decades later some exploration wells have been drilled almost eight times deeper.

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