Conclusion The Future of the Arctic

The picture of tomorrow's Arctic that emerges is complex, rich and varied. In political and military terms, there are likely to be opportunities for, and instances of, cooperation between allied and rival governments that seek to work together to confront all sorts of shared challenges and pursue a wide variety of mutual interests. Some of these will be environmental concerns, such as the need to protect endangered species, preserve ways of life that are under threat, or to prevent and alleviate the damage inflicted by oil spills or tanker collisions. There will also be considerable interplay of scientific expertise, as geologists, meteorologists and other experts from the 'Arctic Eight' and the wider world work together not just to consider the challenge of global warming in general but also to assess its impact on the polar regions in particular. And the immense technical challenge of extracting offshore oil and natural gas will, in the foreseeable future at least, often prompt Russia to act with, not against, other countries such as Norway that do have the necessary know-how.

At the same time, this upbeat picture of international cooperation and harmony is likely to coexist with moments of real tension and mistrust that will certainly lead to heated exchanges of words and fierce scientific debates. For international interest in the Arctic's energy resources is likely to engender a new form of diplomacy of which scientific evidence will form an increasingly important part. The 'Arctic Five', and other coastal states the world over, are already spending considerable sums of money trying to obtain the necessary geological evidence to prove that they have outer continental shelves reaching up to 350 miles from their baselines. These countries are already engaging in debates and arguments that are increasingly specialized in scientific terms, and they are likely to continue doing so in the years ahead.

Even if their claims are initially rejected outright by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, new findings and opinions may prompt some governments to want to resubmit their case, perhaps impatiently seizing the disputed area for themselves before any judgement is formally delivered in their favour.1 Others may not wish to resubmit their arguments and prefer to take matters into their own hands, perhaps making a unilateral declaration that the disputed area does belong to them and brandishing scientific 'evidence', perhaps of dubious validity, in their bid to prove it. But the emergence of this new type of diplomacy - which, when blended with geology and scientific expertise could perhaps be termed 'geodi-plomacy' - is not in itself likely to lead to war. It merely changes the way in which individual governments express and assert themselves. 'There will be a battle between Canadian and Danish scientists on one side and the Russians on the other', as one expert has said of the Lomonosov Ridge, emphasizing that the task of proving its geological formation is a very challenging one.2

But disagreements over resources that are located, or thought to be located, in some regions - such as the waters around the Svalbard archipelago and the Barents Sea - could nonetheless lead to some difficult and tense moments. These might become quite serious enough in diplomatic terms but, fortunately, are likely to fall well short of a full-scale 'resource war': as the book has consistently argued, governments are most unlikely to want to risk losing a war over an area that may have nothing, or very little, to offer them.

At one end of the spectrum, there will be serious diplomatic protests if any country exploits the Arctic's natural resources in areas of 'high seas', but then refuses to acknowledge its obligations under the 1982 Convention. Under Article 140 of this treaty, signatories must recognize that their activities in these areas must be undertaken 'for the benefit of mankind' and acknowledge the right of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to 'equitably share financial and other benefits derived from activities in "the Area"'. But, given their track record, it is not easy to see countries like China, Russia and the United States easily bowing to the ISA's authority. Each might take liberties with the letter and spirit of the law, dragging their heels to avoid making any payments or perhaps even just ignoring such demands altogether. As an earlier chapter has noted, these provisions have already previously stirred considerable controversy in Washington, and are likely to continue doing so in the years ahead.

Another, relatively innocuous, scenario would be symbolic gestures of the sort that Russia undertook near the North Pole in August 2007. The Russian armed forces have also carried out naval manoeuvres in the midst of Norway's oil and gas platforms in the North Sea, undertaken aggressive air sorties that have grounded all offshore helicopter flights from nearby Norway, made some mock bombing runs, and in the course of 2008 were responsible for at least three other, all relatively unpublicized, incidents.3 Such actions are of course capable of causing serious alarm and are also likely to be symptomatic of a wider, underlying tension.

A more serious situation is what might be termed a 'deadlock' scenario in which the armed forces of one country deliberately and proactively undertake a provocative action, which is designed to assert a legal claim and embarrass the other side, but no shots are actually fired. An example of such a tense predicament took place in 1969, when the American-owned ship, the Manhattan, made its way in a high-handed manner through waters that Canada claimed as its own; or in 1967 when Washington openly challenged the Kremlin's requirement that all foreign ships wanting to pass through its territorial waters should obtain its prior permission.4 Again, the harassment of the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea in April 2009 falls into this category. Confrontations like these can sometimes lead to war, although careful diplomacy, and the fact that one participant has a significantly stronger force in the field than the other, is more likely to defuse the situation. In the same way, it is possible to imagine Russia dispatching a naval force to Svalbard in the years ahead to assert its claim to the surrounding waters while at the same time foreign diplomats work hard to find a face-saving formula that prevents such a situation from getting out of hand.

If such a stand-off does escalate and blows are exchanged, then any consequent confrontation is not likely to be protracted, unless of course it merely triggers a much wider conflict that has its own independent causes of which events and developments in the Arctic are just a sign or aggravation. The violent exchanges between Icelandic fishermen and the Norwegian coast guard in 1994 instead give a better indication of the brief but bitter sequence of events that might unfold in this situation.5 Such brief incidents would in all likelihood also be quickly curtailed by a flurry of diplomacy between rival claimants that have no real wish to enter into a lasting fight, but nonetheless still want to be seen, by international and domestic audiences alike, to be making a particular point and asserting the national interest.

The real risk - and the last of the three scenarios - is that countries on the Arctic rim will feel threatened by the growing involvement of foreign countries in a strategically important region. The presence of any natural resources, real or imagined, merely accentuates this danger, either increasing the amount of shipping in local waters or, for example, the number of local companies that are bought out by foreign investors, while also prompting Russia, the United States or any other country to misapprehend the motives of others. Historic fears of foreign invasion could easily surface, prompting one coastal state to make a pre-emptive attack at moments of high tension.

Recognizing these dangers is of course only half the battle. It is also necessary to find ways of defusing tension.

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