The Glacially Slow Race for the Arctic

By Charlotte Matthysen

The Arctic may appear to be a newly prominent issue for much of the international community. The detention of Greenpeace activists by Russia, the addition of several new countries - including China and Japan - to the Arctic Council as observer states, and breakthroughs in natural resource extraction have all featured recently in the news. But the region has always been a part of the strategic reflection of the Arctic states - the five Nordic countries, Canada, the United States, and Russia - and, as such, embedded in their internal affairs and external relations.

The Arctic states each have their specific perspectives and interests. For instance, Denmark remains very much focused on Greenland and its economic opportunities. With a growing population and limitations on traditional fishing, Greenland is seeing opportunities in mining and resource exploitation, although the prospects for commercial mining have been delayed by safety concerns. In another recent development, the Danish Parliament narrowly reversed a contentious ban on uranium mining in Greenland.

Meanwhile, Norway shows a remarkable inclusive approach to the Arctic and understands that operating in the Arctic comes with risks. Although Norwegian waters are largely ice-free for most of the year, they can be very unpredictable. Standard navigational equipment is not always accurate close to the Pole and the hulls of ships require extra reinforcement to withstand collisions with floating ice. The Norwegian government has held military rescue exercises with Russia since the early 1990s. Such bilateral cooperation has recently been reinforced, with a senior Russian delegation visiting Norway just last month to discuss Arctic issues.

By contrast, matters relating to the Arctic are a relatively low priority for the United States, whose National Arctic Policy is a mere 13 pages long. The United States appears to have reduced the Arctic region to an issue involving only Alaska and the Pacific side of the North Pole. There are, notably, only two icebreakers covering the entire U.S. Arctic coastline.

On the other hand, Russia has ten operational ice-breakers and two more under construction, in line with its fast-growing emphasis on the Arctic region. President Vladimir Putin announced recently that the military should consider the Arctic a top priority, increasing its presence by reopening former bases in the far north. The Russian Ministry of Regional Development has allocated $56 billion to a program for socioeconomic development in the Arctic, and is expecting another $31 billion to come from private investment. The majority of Russia's activities in the region relate to oil, gas, and mineral exploitation and commercial shipping. Many experts in the shipping industry, however, believe that the Arctic is for now more a destination for shipping, rather than a viable commercial shipping transit between Asia and Europe. With only 52 ships making the journey this year, the Northern Sea Route is still far too unpredictable to make a difference to global sea traffic.

Despite these different national priorities and objectives, the Arctic Council is one of the few international bodies where consensus decisions are readily within reach. This sheds a particular spotlight on the organization, for which many states have recently applied for observer status. In fact, the twelve permanent observer states outnumber the eight full member states.

But, in general, discussion of the Arctic remains scarce at international forums. Many aspects deserve greater consideration, including security questions, territorial claims, agreements such as that of the Law of the Sea, the economic impact of resource exploitation and commercial shipping, energy flows, conservation issues, and ecological concerns. Discussion of these and other issues should not lead to a rush to the Arctic, as the region is not likely to change overnight into a whirl of global activity and economic development. But it will offer important opportunities. Indeed, it may be that the glacial pace of Arctic development will allow the international community and national stakeholders to develop common approaches to meet the regional challenges of the future.

Charlotte Matthysen is a program assistant for major conferences in the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

(AP Photo)

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