Will climate change lead to a militarised Arctic?

Bathymetric map of the Arctic Ocean (source: NOAA)

With the increasing loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic will come expanded opportunities for commercial exploitation of the region. Talk of the Northwest Passage is again commonplace, and, with US policymakers so concerned about national energy security, Alaska’s North Slope looks likely to be further opened to oil extraction.

Will commercial and geopolitical pressures on the Arctic increase the risk of military confrontation in the region? That was certainly the impression given by the planting in 2007 of a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The action was part of a research exercise designed to reinforce Russia’s claim to the Lomonosov and Mendeleev ridges.

A study by researchers at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute near Oslo casts doubt on the more alarmist media and interest group reports. In a paper recently published in the journal Polar Record, jurist Øystein Jensen and political scientist Svein Vigeland Rottem take what they describe as a more realpolitik look at the situation in Norway’s Arctic waters, and from this comment on the wider picture. The researchers argue that dispassionate diplomacy is more likely to resolve disputes than military confrontation.

“Contrary to the general picture drawn by the media and some commentators over the last couple of years, the Arctic region does not suffer under a state of virtual anarchy,” says Jensen. “The era when states could claim rights to territory and resources by simply planting their flag is long gone.”

The Arctic Ocean is exactly that – an ocean – and as such it is regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Jensen and Rottem argue that challenges to the legal status of the Arctic Ocean as a sea area – owing to it being predominantly ice-covered – stand no chance of being accepted in international law.

“[T]he United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – the relevant legal framework for national legislation in most state-to-state relations today – contains a clause reserved especially to ice-covered waters,” says Jensen. “The Convention thus leaves little doubt that a broad consensus exists as to the question of the applicability of the law of the sea to all parts of the Arctic Ocean.”

Following Russia’s much reported photo opportunity with the flag, the legal consensus referred to by Jensen was confirmed in 2008 at the Ilulissat summit in Greenland, where all the Arctic coastal states recognised the Law of the Sea as the starting point for the regulation of human activity in the Arctic Ocean.

“Since the issues some call ‘security policy challenges’ are, in fact, already largely regulated by international law that most states find it to their benefit to observe, the room for conflict is limited,” adds Rottem. “Issues and disputes whose resolution procedures are not clearly lined out in international law, are relatively minor. Under a sober realpolitik analysis, trying or threatening to solve these disputes by military means would simply not be worth it, the negative political and legal ramifications would be too large.”

Although Jensen and Rottem’s study focuses on the European Arctic, and in particular Norway’s longstanding interest in it, the authors believe that their results can be extrapolated to the entire Arctic region, as it is covered by the same legal framework.

Further reading

Øystein Jensen & Svein Vigeland Rottem, “The politics of security and international law in Norway’s Arctic waters”, Polar Record 46, 75 (2009)