An arctic Cold War with Russia?

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010

By Kenneth Yalowitz and William Courtney

McClatchy Newspapers

Some fear that melting Arctic sea ice could trigger a new "great game" between the United States and Russia as they and other Arctic coastal states race to extract newly accessible energy and minerals resources. These fears are exaggerated. There are few, if any, signs of military buildups or tensions, as states are pursuing diplomatic solutions to border delimitation issues. But new confidence-building measures could help avert future risks.

Russia, the United States and Canada, among others, have vital interests in the Arctic region. Russia can benefit enormously if it safely develops northern energy and mineral reserves, much of which lie in shallow water on its continental shelf. Moscow's emerging Arctic strategy gives great weight to protecting this resource.

Russia and Canada are asserting national claims over the Northeast and Northwest sea passages, respectively, and monitoring the growth of international shipping close to their territory. U.S. interests stem from Alaska's location and keeping those seaways as international bodies of water.

Sea ice, which has covered the Arctic Ocean for millennia, is receding and thinning rapidly, declining 10 percent per decade. There will be open water seasonally across the Arctic Ocean in the near future. This will allow for significant increases in shipping, resource exploitation, and, consequently, risks to the environment. Rich Arctic fisheries could be endangered by uncontrolled fishing or accidental pollution.

The stakes are great. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 30 percent of the remaining world reserves of natural gas and 10 percent of oil reserves lie in the Arctic region. The blow-out of the BP Deep Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico highlights the danger of oil extraction in water much less environmentally challenging than the Arctic Ocean, although deeper.

While some projects are on hold due to the world economic downturn, global energy demand, sooner or later, will spur substantial Arctic resources development. This prospect has led Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark to push claims for extended jurisdiction over the Arctic Ocean's continental shelves and their resources. The international vehicle for adjudicating boundary claims is the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), which all Arctic states accept as the forum for handling them. Although the United States is gathering data for possible future claims, these will have no standing unless the Senate finally ratifies the convention. This step has enjoyed strong support from every president since Ronald Reagan and from Navy and Coast Guard leaders.

International Arctic governance is led by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of eight Arctic states, six indigenous peoples' organizations, and observers. The council plays an important role in focusing attention and drafting scientific and social assessments of environmental and climate-related issues. It, however, lacks an enforcement mechanism, security and political issues are beyond its purview, and neither any Asian country nor the European Union is a full member.

Some believe a new Arctic international agreement is needed to head off inevitable political and even military tensions. Others argue the leading Arctic states will not cede their influence and support a new treaty, that the Arctic Council and other organizations can provide leadership, and that the Law of the Sea Convention offers sufficient legal framework for managing territorial shelf disputes.

To date, diplomacy is carrying the day. The 2008 Illulissat Declaration of the five Arctic coastal states - America, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway and Russia - commits them to use the UNCLOS as the mechanism for resolving boundary claims. The recent decision of Russia and Norway to end a 40-year dispute by agreeing to divide the Barents Sea and part of the Arctic Ocean into clear economic zones is a positive sign. U.S.-Canadian differences over boundaries and the Northwest Passage likewise are managed through diplomatic channels.

Fortunately, there are no inevitable geopolitical fault lines in the Arctic region and no resource wars on the horizon. Most energy reserves are located in the 200-nautical mile nationally-controlled Exclusive Economic Zones. The Navy's Arctic Roadmap underscores the protection of US security interests in the Arctic but does not point to imminent military buildups or threats. The Coast Guard seeks more resources to secure possible U.S. claims and prepare for increased human activity.

In fact, environmental security concerns arising from transportation accidents, unsafe energy exploration or shipping, and pollutants from the South pose the greatest threat to the Arctic.

To lessen these risks and enhance security, the Arctic coastal states should begin now to negotiate new confidence-building measures. Priority should be given to measures which foster cooperation in search and rescue, information sharing for maritime domain awareness, and transparency of environmental and safety assessments before new energy and minerals extraction activities begin.

Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, which includes the Institute of Arctic Studies, and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and an arms control negotiator.

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