The real danger

The retreat of the Arctic's ice instead poses another risk to peace and stability, one that is much more serious than the advent of any 'resource war'. As the waters of the Arctic Ocean steadily become more navigable, Russia and the United States may start to feel threatened by the growing presence of foreign governments in areas that they regard as strategically important, or even as their own backyard.

This could happen if a rival government establishes a commercial or, more drastically, a military presence in the region, or if commercial vessels or warships make their way through Arctic waters, simply exercising their right of 'innocent passage' through the territorial seas that lie adjacent to every coastal state. These ships could also provoke serious incidents if they venture through disputed waters.

For a country that is already mistrustful of another, such a presence might easily confirm its suspicions, reinforcing a picture of hostility and enmity that already seems plain to see. It is possible to imagine a strong reaction in Washington if, for example, Chinese companies should start to establish themselves in a country like Greenland, which is both strategically important as well as rich in resources. Or if Iranian warships 'innocently' made their way close to the Northwest Passage at a time of heightened tension over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Accidents can also spark confrontations: it was fortunate that a serious collision between Russian and American submarines in Kolski Bay, in the waters outside Murmansk, happened at a time when Cold War relations had thawed considerably.23

There is an obvious counterargument: warships from Russia, the United States, China and every other country can currently sail in high seas close to each other's mainland, or make 'innocent passage' within a short distance of their shores. There are also places, such as Cuba and Poland, where Russian and American forces can establish themselves in a way that the other would find highly provocative, or even intolerable.24 Why, then, are the Arctic's waters and territories more likely than anywhere else to become a future danger zone? Most importantly, the regional presence of highly valued natural resources will give countries from all over the globe (not just the 'Arctic Five') a particular reason to establish themselves there. So if Chinese energy companies should explore for oil in Russia's Arctic waters, perhaps not far from the American border in the Bering Strait, there would be serious tensions between Washington and Beijing. China, as a later chapter points out, is in the process of undertaking a major overhaul and expansion of its naval forces, and the Arctic is one theatre where its ships might eventually come into close proximity with those of the Americans. Washington might also feel threatened if Chinese state-owned organizations invested in places such as Greenland, which the United States considers strategically important.25 The Chinese could also conceivably eye the natural resources of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, where some of the world's purest iron ore has been found and is already in the process of being exploited.26

The Arctic also has crucial strategic importance as some of the Arctic's islands and shores, notably Greenland and Svalbard, hold the key to the defence of Atlantic shipping routes, Russia's ports and industrial complexes, America's radar network as well as Alaska's oil installations. In the longer term, some of its seas may eventually become vital international trade routes that link east and west. This doesn't just mean that more ships will be making their way through their waters, but also that foreign governments will have better reason than before to establish a presence there.

The region is special for the simple reason that there are few other strategically important areas close to the two key members of the 'Arctic Eight'1 - the United States and Russia - where an enemy force could conceivably establish a landed presence. Either country could hypothetically set up a military base on Greenland's east coast and in doing so make the other feel threatened. Decades hence, when the local climate may have become much less harsh, both could also beef up their forces close to the Barents Strait, facing each other from their respective territories in the same way they did in central Europe during the Cold War.

In other words, even if we suppose that the Arctic is completely devoid of natural resources, the region's increasing strategic importance could still exacerbate a state of mistrust between rival countries. Moscow could conceivably step up its military presence there, establishing what its Security Council chiefs have called 'a main f The 'Arctic Eight' are Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark,

Iceland, Finland and Sweden.

strategic resource base' and by doing so make other countries equally fearful.27 Or it is possible to imagine several foreign ships sailing, without Moscow's permission, towards the Vilkitsky Strait, a vital link between the Kara and Laptev Seas, and, at a moment of high international tension, the Russian authorities then taking preventive action to thwart an attack that they feel sure is imminent (Map 2).

The five Arctic coastal states are not accustomed to maritime traffic moving through those seas that are only now just starting to become accessible, or to the idea that a rival government might in some way establish itself in the region. Both Canada and Russia regard the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, which runs along the Russian coast, as their own respective 'historic waters'. They strongly dispute the alleged right of foreign ships to pass through them without permission and Russia, in particular, views their passage as an unwelcome intrusion into its territory. The United States might not have any comparable legal claim over the seas that lie north of Alaska but the mere prospect of foreign ships sailing through these waters is not something that American strategists are any more accustomed to than their Russian and Canadian counterparts.

Exactly when Russia, the United States or any of the other Arctic countries might start to feel threatened in this way, whether by the passage of ships or by any apparent occupation of Arctic land, is hard to say. What is certain is that although there are no precise figures on maritime traffic in the High North, experts know that it is already increasing considerably. According to one highly authoritative source, approximately 6,000 vessels ventured into the Arctic marine area in the course of 2004, around half of which were fishing vessels, while the rest were commercial ships and carriers.28 In 2007, when seasonal ice was considerably lighter than the previous year, the Canadian coast guard also recorded a big jump in the number of ships moving into Arctic waters, while the Russians have started to make good use of the western end of their Northern Sea Route.29 As the Secretary-General of NATO has pointed out, 'several Arctic Rim countries are strengthening their capabilities, and military activity in the High North region has been steadily increasing'.30

It is possible to imagine Russia or the United States taking action in the region that others might regard as belligerent, even if they are undertaken defensively. As a United States presidential directive on the Arctic, published in January 2009, argued, 'human activity in the Arctic region is increasing and is projected to increase further in coming years. This requires the United States to assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region'.31 The document also stressed that the United States has to 'project a sovereign . . . maritime presence in the Arctic in support of essential United States interests'. Washington certainly thinks that Russia is likely to pose a big threat to the region's stability and will pursue what the CIA calls 'a more proactive and influential foreign policy, reflecting Moscow's re-emergence as a major player on the world stage', while 'few countries are poised to have more impact on the world over the next fifteen to twenty years than China'.32 The Arctic may prove to be one forum where these and other countries could assert themselves over the coming years.

Premonitions of the type of situation that could be realized in the years ahead came in the summer of 2008, when the economy of Iceland, which stands on the periphery of the Arctic, began to implode. In August, Reykjavik first asked Moscow for a loan and 3 months later reiterated its request, asking for $6 billion. Many observers felt sure that Russia would try to attach political strings to any such loan, seeking preferential rights over Iceland's fisheries, energy and mining sectors and perhaps even assuming control over an air base, once used by the Americans but abandoned in 2006, at Keflavik. 'If Russia becomes the country which saves the Icelandic economy, Russia could also end up securing an extended level of power in the North Atlantic', as one media editorial argued.33 But any such move would have caused serious tension with the United States.

The next three chapters look at the setting - the people, the place and the vexing question of who the region actually belongs to - where some of the controversies and disputes are being played out.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment