An exaggerated risk

It is certainly true that in recent years disagreements about who owns some resource-rich waters have led to exchanges not just of heated words but also of violent blows. The legal status of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has long been hotly debated in the region and has created a state of high tension between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and other neighbouring countries. In 1988 this spilled over and nearly caused a regional war when Chinese gunboats sank Vietnamese transport ships that were supporting a military landing party near Johnson Reef. And in recent years, speculation that these waters could be a major source of petroleum has made the dispute even more bitter.

The underlying theme of this book is that the events of August 2007 are most unlikely to be the prelude to a future resource war fought over the Arctic. On the contrary, it is usually unnecessary and sometimes wholly counterproductive for any country to use military force to seize control over a foreign supply of natural resources. The Russian government would immediately alienate the sympathy of foreign investors, who are vital to the success of its economy in general and its energy sector in particular, and suffer a stock market slump if it undertook such drastic action. And even this assumes that the Arctic does have any natural resources that are really worth fighting over.

Most international powers have much more to gain from using the UN in order to stake their claim to the Arctic. To make their case as compelling as possible, they will be likely to rely on the presentation of highly sophisticated scientific evidence about very specialized issues, most notably the formation of the complex geological structures that lie beneath this disputed region. Such claims are likely to be backed up by the threat of military force, a threat that will usually be latent, at other times much more explicit, to lend them extra credibility. This, in turn, creates another serious danger, a danger of accidental war waged by a power that fears imminent attack by a rival, and then strikes its own pre-emptive blow.

If any particular controversy perfectly illustrates how irrational and exaggerated such speculation of a 'resource war' really is, then it is the dispute over Hans Island in the Nares Strait that lies between Greenland and Canada (Map 2). Because some geologists have speculated that these waters might have large deposits of oil and gas, the two governments have strongly disputed each other's territorial claim to the island. These disagreements have sometimes escalated into bitter squabbling and have led to acts of military posturing and showmanship. To the onlooker this dispute is not easy to understand because even if there are commercial quantities of oil and gas in the Nares Strait, the question of who actually rules Hans Island is likely to be irrelevant. Any sizeable deposits are much more likely to be found in the surrounding waters than on such a tiny island, and a border agreement that both governments signed in 1973 would determine their ownership.19

Nor, on close inspection, are some of Moscow's supposedly belligerent statements really quite as threatening as they might sometimes sound. The Kremlin's announcement, made in March 2009, of the formation of a new military force was even welcomed by some of those who studied the fine print. Norwegian State Secretary of Defence, Espen Barth Eide, told a British newspaper that he was 'not concerned' by the announcement but regarded it as a way of fostering cooperation in the region. 'I don't think an increased military presence needs to increase tensions if the interested parties are informed', he said. And there was, he continued, no reason to doubt Moscow's stated goal of trying to establish 'a zone of peace and co-operation' in the region.20

There is no reason why the prospect of finding large quantities of natural resources in the Arctic region should undermine the commitment made by the five coastal states in May 2008, when representatives gathered in Greenland to issue what has become known as the Ilulissat Declaration. Reaffirming their wish to pursue 'the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims', they also declared their commitment to the 1982 Convention, even though the United States is not a member:

[T]he law of the sea provides for important rights and obligations concerning the delineation of the outer limits of the continental shelf, the protection of the marine environment, including ice-covered areas, freedom of navigation, marine scientific research, and other uses of the sea.21

Instead, many actions that might be deemed to be 'warmongering' amount to empty posturing and, in the words of the chief of the Russian navy, Vladimir Vysoktsky, are merely 'psychological'.22

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