Today, the spectre of climate change is at the forefront of most people’s minds as it threatens myriad natural disasters, increased competition over food and water, mass migration, and increased chances for conflict. It also contributes significantly to the decrease in ice surrounding the earth’s poles, unlocking a new arena for a select group of states to engage in – the Arctic. As more of the Arctic becomes accessible, we will see an increase in fishing, natural resource extraction, and the establishment of a new trade route – the Northern Sea Route. These opportunities translate into multistate involvement and interaction in the region, and have the potential to result in disagreements and crises of its own. How the involved states choose to behave in the Arctic in the next decade or two will set the tone for subsequent engagement in the region – will it be one of cooperation, or conflict?
A small club of countries which border the Arctic, or have a vested interest in it, have already begun discussions on the Arctic. The preeminent institution in this regard is the Arctic Council. Founded in 1996 in Ottawa, Canada, it is a high-level intergovernmental forum which addresses Arctic issues, including the environment, climate, biodiversity, and research (explicitly choosing to exclude military issues). Its members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, as well as a number of other states and organisations in an observer capacity. For the “Arctic Five” – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the US – their territory in the Arctic is based on their exclusive economic zones (EEZ) – reaching no more than 200 nautical miles from their coasts. Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia have also claimed portions of the Arctic seafloor which are not part of their recognized EEZs. Russia has claimed two underwater ridges – Lomonosov Ridge and Mendeleev Ridge – arguing that they are located on the Eurasian continental shelf and therefore the exclusive rights belong to Russia. This would grant Russia territory reaching all the way to the North Pole. Denmark has also submitted a claim on parts of that same territory, however, unlike Russia’s claim, it reaches deep into another state’s territorial waters (see map). The outcome of these disputes remains uncertain, and more are likely to emerge.