Thursday, 26 April 2018
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Charting icy waters: Strategy and securitisation in the Arctic

By Dylan White, UK Defence Forum Researcher

British explorer Albert Markham once remarked that the ‘North Polar problem’ had ‘set at defiance’ the world ‘for many years’. The observation rings as true today as it did when Markham made the point in 1896. Twelve decades ago, his primary concern was with land exploration rights; today, nations jockey for a different type of comparative advantage. In 1989, surveys of the Arctic Sea floor first offered hints that vast stores of petroleum might lie beneath the frigid waters. Unsurprisingly, the intervening twenty years have seen an explosion of interest in geological surveys of the region. Arctic issues once considered trivial – regional governance, minor border disputes, environmental regulations, etc. – now represent major foreign policy considerations for Arctic states and other world powers.

As the spectre of Arctic resource wealth has grown more real, energy security has become a securitized issue amongst Arctic states. This process has occurred marginally in Greenland and Norway, more so in Canada and the United States, and to an extreme degree in Russia. Broad-based international support for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – ideally led by China – could contribute to a reduction in security rhetoric and threat, particularly from Russia.

The Arctic – opportunity and challenge

So what is ‘the Arctic’, and why are powers from Brussels to Beijing starting to pay so much attention? In general terms, ‘the Arctic’ represents a region roughly north of 60°, largely defined by environmental factors. Much of this region is occupied by the Arctic Ocean, which may blanket vast underwater reserves of oil and natural gas. In 2009, a landmark report by the US Geological Survey estimated that over 80 billion barrels of oil and 45 trillion cubic metres of natural gas exist in the region. To put this figure in perspective, the oil alone would be sufficient to completely replace the UK’s current daily production for approximately one hundred and fifty years.

Of course, the Arctic belongs to no one state. Insofar as sovereignty exists in the region, it is divided among the so-called Arctic Five (A5) states bordering the ocean. Comprising Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States, the group enjoys special rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS grants full sovereignty out to 12 miles (19.3km) from national coasts, and limited sovereignty to 200 miles (321.9km).

Most importantly for Arctic resource extraction purposes, UNCLOS grants specific development rights if a state can prove an ‘extended continental shelf’ exists underwater. Each state has ten years from ratification to submit proof of such a shelf. Norway ratified UNCLOS in 1996 and submitted its claim in 2006. Russia ratified in 1997, and made a submission in 2001. This was deemed unacceptable, and Russia was asked to conduct further research, which is on-going. Canada (2003), Denmark (2004), and the US have not yet made submissions (the US has yet to even ratify UNCLOS). Once all submissions have been made, it will not necessarily be smooth sailing; each member of the A5 has at least one outstanding territorial or border dispute with at least one other member. Overlapping geological claims will inevitably be made, resulting in high-stakes conflict – politics cloaked in science.

Despite recent efforts, international cooperation in the Arctic region is only weakly institutionalized. The Arctic Council (AC), formed in 1996, is the Arctic’s pre-eminent international institution. Comprised of the A5, plus Finland, Iceland, and Sweden, as well as groups representing aboriginal groups, the AC is consensus-based, and largely deals with issues involving the environment, and research-based cooperation. After fifteen years of existence, the AC’s very first binding treaty was signed in 2011, on search-and-rescue coordination. In other words, the AC shows little promise of being able to deal with the resource-based issues which will dominate future talks on the region.

Securitisation and sabre-rattling – Canada, Greenland, Norway, US

In light of the massive economic rewards potentially at stake, it is unsurprising that A5 governments have increasingly securitized the Arctic energy issue in recent years. Within security studies, the term ‘securitization’ conveys an elevation of an issue beyond the realm of ordinary politics. In this process, a subject is perceived to be under existential threat, and in absolute need of protection. Resources are then targeted to neutralize said threat. Many politicians in A5 nations see their sovereignty and energy security as being threatened, and are loath to allow perceived challenges to go unanswered.

Canada has given the Arctic security issue much attention in recent years. In 2007, a military deep-water port was announced, and in 2008, the interestingly-named ‘Canada First’ strategy was unveiled, proposing enormous military investments in the North. Finally, in 2010, Canadian fighter jets intercepted Russian bombers near Canadian airspace, leading Defence Minister MacKay to say: ‘we intend to use the Arctic…our presence…is going to continue to expand’.

The United States has also shown an increasing tendency to view the region through the lens of national security interest. Increased military patrols were announced in 2007, and President G. W. Bush issued a Presidential Directive ordering a renewed security focus on the Arctic in early 2009. Under President Obama, discussions of Arctic security have been enhanced in the National Security Strategy. In 2011, the Heritage Foundation called for a new plan for ‘combatant command Arctic operations’.

Norway and Greenland have not jumped headlong down the path of securitisation, but subtle hints suggest that they too perceive resource competition as potentially threatening. In August of 2009, Oslo ordered its Operational Command Headquarters relocated to an outpost north of the Arctic Circle. Semi-autonomous Greenland, with only sixty thousand citizens, is understandably not in a position to mount military defences of its interests, but her Prime Minister spoke out in 2011, expressing a hope that Greenland would get its fair share, and that oil and gas would become his nation’s ‘main economic activity’.

The signs are clear – Canada, Greenland, Norway, and the United States understand what’s at stake in the north, and have expressed a desire to take what is rightfully theirs. Moderate but significant northward shifts in strategic priorities have occurred in all four nations, representing securitisation in motion.

Polar empire ambitions – Russia

Russia’s push for securitisation on the Arctic file has been so intense that it deserves a separate discussion. Even in the 1930s, analysts spoke of Russia’s desire to establish a ‘Polar Empire’; those dreams have only intensified. At the sunset of the Soviet Union, President Gorbachev suggested the Arctic become a ‘zone of peace’; yet as the economic prospects of the region have brightened, Russia has become bolder and more aggressive in the north.

Today, in a context where ‘Russian greatness’ is the primary focus of Russia’s foreign policy, Moscow’s positional role is seen as ‘integrally linked’ with access to hydrocarbons. In 2007, military forces dropped a Russian flag on the Arctic seafloor, prompting international outrage. In 2009, ballistic missile testing was carried out by nuclear-powered submarines near the North Pole. Still more worrying, the Russian Security Council opined in 2009 that the other members of the A5 were conspiring to systematically exclude Russia from ‘the riches of the shelf’, and that Russia ‘would not rule out…military force’ over Arctic resources. Russia’s strategy in the North has comprised unilateral and inflammatory behaviour, and its leaders have framed its security prerogatives in highly bellicose fashion.

In a fashion, this makes sense. Russia – due to its globe-spanning coastline – has the most to gain from Arctic resource exploitation. Conversely, using zero-sum logic, Russia also has the most to lose. Consider that only 0.29% of US GDP comes from economic activity in the Arctic. Compare that figure with 0.51% in Canada, 0.71% in Greenland, 7.61% in Norway… and a whopping 14.95% in Russia. Already topping US $150 billion (£95 billion), Russia plans for annual Arctic production income to climb to 20% of GDP by 2020. The stakes are higher for Russia, so it’s playing for keeps – that’s simple cognitive economics. It also lends frightening weight to Moscow’s threats of military action.

International influence and the future

If Russia is threatening to upset the apple cart, China may be the one to steady it again. Indeed, China is showing increasing interest in the Arctic: Beijing’s ‘Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration’ have maintained a permanent base in Norway since 2004, and a new icebreaker is planned for 2013. As and when Arctic resource extraction becomes viable on a grand scale, China will likely be a major customer… and danger is bad for business. After all, the enemy of stability is uncertainty. If Russia behaves erratically or aggressively in the Arctic, it could hurt business and drive emerging markets (namely China) to shop elsewhere. If Russia is serious about consolidating itself as the predominant Arctic power by 2020, she wouldn’t be wise to spurn her wealthiest customer.

Indeed, broad-based, international economic pressure is likely the best way to achieve a toning-down in security rhetoric amongst Arctic states. Six European states (including the UK) have permanent observer status at the Arctic Council; China and the EU want in as well. These are powerful voices at the table. A fruitful way forward might be for influential states to speak out publicly in support of UNCLOS, and loudly encourage the A5 (particularly Russia) to accept UNCLOS’s binding arbitration when it comes. China has been a signatory since 1996, and would have a financial incentive in urging Russia to comply. After all, it’s in everyone’s interest to know that investments are safe; this can best be achieved when there is certainty that Arctic states will play by the rules, and not jeopardize investment with aggression or the threat thereof.

In the trillion-dollar race to carve up the top of the world, a little cooperative effort (sweetened by self-interest) might just prevent an unfortunate slip of the knife.

Note: Citations may be requested from the author.

Dylan White holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London, and a BA in Political Science from the University of Toronto.

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