For one Western tourist who was taking a cruise around the Svalbard archipelago in the summer 2005, the advent of global warming presented an opportunity that was simply too good to miss. He had heard that a number of tiny islands, many no bigger than a tennis court or baseball pitch, had suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in parts of the Arctic Ocean. Covered by massive glaciers for thousands of years, it is only now, as the ice shelf continues to retreat, that they have begun to surface. Unmarked on any map, many of these islets are in the north Barents Sea, near Svalbard, while others have also been seen off the shores of Greenland, Iceland and elsewhere.1
The traveller regarded these newly discovered lumps of rock as a huge temptation. As the ship pulled closer, he became so excited that, with a real spirit of adventure, he waded ashore, scribbled his name on a can of baked beans, stuck it into the soil and then loudly proclaimed that the island was his own.2 In the true spirit of the astronauts who landed on the moon, or of Captain Cook in the New World, this undiscovered piece of territory seemed, for a few brief moments at least, to belong to him.
This story says something about what lies at the heart of all the various controversies and disputes in the contemporary Arctic. This is not the presence of petroleum or any other highly prized natural resource. Nor is it the region's superb strategic location. After all, numerous other parts of the world are bestowed with either, or sometimes both, of these assets, but in recent decades have never been quarrelled over by foreign powers. Both Russia and the United States have vast oil deposits and no one disputes whom those resources belong to, even if the status of foreign companies as they extract oil or any other substance from the ground is often a highly contentious issue.3
The difference is one of legality. When any natural resources are located within established, undisputed national borders, they are unlikely to create or aggravate a serious international dispute because everyone agrees to whom they belong. The problem comes when the ownership of the region where these assets are located is open to serious question.
In the past few years, this question has been asked about many parts of the world. Sometimes different answers can lead to serious domestic disputes, just as the identity of contemporary Britain is currently being challenged by a brand of Scottish nationalism that has undoubtedly drawn strength from the exploitation of North Sea oil, and just as parts of West Africa continue to be torn apart by bloody and protracted 'resource civil wars' waged by militias with rival claims to reserves of petroleum.4
At other times, such resources may belong to a state, which, although formally recognized by the United Nations, is regarded by some countries as 'illegitimate' in some other way. In this situation, these resources can make international tensions much worse. Many of the borders in the Middle East were drawn up hastily and at times almost randomly after the First World War and their validity has been questioned by some Arab leaders. 'Lack of legitimacy was a basic feature of the new state system', says one leading historian of the Middle East.5 So Iraq has long claimed Kuwait as its own territory and this was the premise upon which Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of the principality in August 1990, even though disputes over its oil were the immediate cause.6
Finally, there are places that seem to belong to no one, and which foreign powers therefore feel free to claim as their own. This is exactly what happened during the 'Scramble for Africa' that began in the 1880s, when rival European governments raced to colonize whole swathes of a newly discovered continent that seemed to promise minerals and other natural resources on a vast scale. In the contemporary world, most governments are more likely to petition the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for formal recognition over an unclaimed stretch of land or water.
The various different Arctic controversies and disputes fall into each of these three categories. The question of who rules Greenland, for example, is essentially a domestic dispute because for more than 200 years this vast landmass has been a sovereign part of Denmark. Elsewhere, some countries have sometimes failed to reach a lasting agreement about exactly where their borders should be drawn.
Large parts of the Arctic fall into the final category because, like pre-colonial Africa, they have always been a no man's land or sea. Until recently almost no government had attempted to stake its claim to the wilder, more remote regions that lie further north, either because there seemed no point in doing so or because they had no historical, cultural or geographical basis for making such a claim. Only over the past decade has this started to change because the ice has started to melt and huge energy resources have been discovered and become increasingly accessible. Of course the 'Arctic Five' can claim to have sovereignty over their surrounding waters, but beyond that lie frozen seas and wastelands that seem to belong to no one. It is only if Russia and other states can demonstrate that their continental shelves run further out to sea - as the underwater journey of Sagalevich and Chilingarov was intended to demonstrate - that they can potentially extend their 200-mile zone.7
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