The seventh ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in May looked set to be a mundane affair, with its focus on signing a new search-and-rescue agreement and handover of the chairmanship to Sweden.
However, the atmosphere in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, was electrified by the first visit to such a forum by the US, courtesy of US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and a host of other heavy-hitters.
The message was clear: The US is putting itself at the center of the debate about the future of the far north at a time when a new oil and mineral “cold rush” is under way as global warming makes extraction easier. And being the US, the soft diplomacy was backed up with a bit of symbolic hardware. A few weeks earlier two nuclear-powered submarines were sent to patrol 240km north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.
Illustration: Mountain People
Meanwhile Russia — also on the eight-nation council — was happy to push off the agenda any idea that countries such as China could gain observer status.
The US navy move comes as Russia is said to have increased missile testing in the region and Norway has moved its main military base to the far north.
Meanwhile, China has started to woo countries such as Greenland, which are rich in rare earth minerals needed for mobile phones and other hi-tech equipment.
The competing commercial interests in the Arctic are complicated by the lack of a comprehensive agreement on who owns what. Many countries are in the process of submitting competing land claims to the UN as part of its law of the sea convention — a treaty as yet unsigned by the US.
Canada and others were also disturbed when Artur Chilingarov, a veteran Russian polar explorer, placed a flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007. He told reporters his mission was to show the Arctic was Russian, adding: “We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass.”
Canada took exception to the Russian move, seeing it as provocative, but Moscow dismissed the furor, insisting it was a theatrical gesture by a scientist hired by private companies to make the descent. However, it is telling that the following year Chilingarov was awarded a new title, Hero of the Russian Federation.
Concerns about a new Cold War — if not just a cold rush — have led academics such as Rob Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, to warn in a recent paper prepared for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute that “an arms race may be beginning.”
Huebert says he has heard Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin talking of the need to establish a “zone of peace” in the Arctic, but sees contrary actions as well.
“The strategic value of the region is growing. As this value grows, each state will attach a greater value to their own national interests in the region. The Arctic states may be talking co-operation, but they are preparing for conflict,” Huebert said.
Meanwhile ,Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, in a foreword to a recent paper published by the Royal United Services Institute, said: “For now, the disputes in the north have been dealt with peacefully, but climate change could alter the equilibrium over the coming years in the race of temptation for exploitation of more readily accessible natural resources.”
“The cascading interests stemming from the effects of climate change should cause today’s global leaders to take stock, and unify their efforts to ensure the Arctic remains a zone of cooperation — rather than proceed down the icy slope towards a zone of competition, or worse a zone of conflict,” he said.
Huebert says that as well as opening a new ultra-hi-tech operations center inside a mountain at Reitan, in the far north of Norway, Oslo is also spending unprecedented money on new military hardware, not least five top-of-the-range frigates. The class of vessel is called Fridtjof Nansen, after the famous polar explorer, which perhaps indicates where the navy plans to deploy them.
Meanwhile, Canada’s then foreign minister, Lawrence Cannon, voiced confidence his nation would win the territory.
“We will exercise sovereignty in the Arctic,” he told his Russian counterpart in talks in Moscow.
However, optimists say the fears are exaggerated and point to positive developments, not least Norway and Russia agreeing a mutually acceptable boundary line dividing up the Barents Sea.
One former foreign minister said: “We want to avoid complacency, but all this alarmist talk of meltdown should be shunned. The Arctic is quite pacific. It is not a place of turmoil, but an area of low tension.”
However, Paul Berkman, director of the Arctic Ocean geopolitics program at the Scott Polar Research Institute, believes potential problems cannot be dismissed.
“There is no room for complacency and while tensions are low there is opportunity to address the risks of political, economic and cultural instabilities that are inherent consequences of the environmental state-change in the Arctic Ocean,” he said.
Inuit leaders are already concerned that the talk of industrialization and mineral wealth in the Arctic will increase tension.
Aqqaluk Lynge, former chairman of the indigenous peoples’ forum, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, described himself as “nervous” about current developments.
“There is a military build-up and an increase in megaphone diplomacy ... We do not want a return to the Cold War,” he said.
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