Engaging with the Arctic

by Matthew Ford


THE ARCTIC REGION is undergoing significant change. Not only is global warming fundamentally altering the existing nature of the ice cap but changes to sovereignty are being brought about by the third round of the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  Made famous by Artur Chilingarov’s expedition to place a Russian flag on the Arctic seafloor, UNCLOS allows countries to create Exclusive Economic Zones 200 nautical miles beyond their coastline and lay claim to any contiguous continental shelf that extends from their land mass.  With political uncertainty in the Middle East having forced hydrocarbon hungry nations to diversify their energy supply and Somali piracy costing around US$7bn per annum, the possibilities found in the Arctic have become more financially viable and are now taking on global significance.[i]

The opportunities are impressive.  If the Northern or North West passage were to become sufficiently ice free then shipping distances between Shanghai and Rotterdam could be reduced by 22%.  Similarly, with as much as 13% of the world’s oil and 30% of the world’s gas reserves, the region offers both a potential bonanza for the energy industry and another means of supply that is independent of more volatile parts of the globe.[ii]

Realising these possibilities is not straightforward.  Apart from the difficulties that come from operating in the region, the three-month long Deepwater Horizon disaster stands as a testament to the ecological and environmental risks posed by oil extraction.  The 13.1 million indigenous people living in the Arctic have traditionally been underrepresented in domestic politics.[iii]  Consequently issues associated with environmental protection have primarily been left to green NGOs who have worked hard to highlight the increased threat they see in the oil and gas industry.[iv]

Holding this volatile political mix of issues together has been the Arctic Council.  The Council offers both the means for managing Arctic governance and the chance to coordinate the activities of the eight countries that exist inside the polar cap.  Whereas WikiLeaks cables suggest deep political rifts exist between members scrambling for resources, it is also likely that the Council has informally helped in the process of mediating UNCLOS boundary disputes.[v]

By contrast, countries such as China increasingly seeking ways to assert their interests in the region have found the process of gaining observer status to the Council frustrating.  In this respect, recent developments in Chinese-Norwegian relations may be indicative of future diplomatic sticking points.[vi] The suggestion that cyber attacks on the Nobel Organisation’s website originated in China following the award of a Nobel Peace prize to Liu Xiaobo has underlined the strained nature of relations between the two countries and left Norway openly questioning whether the Chinese should be given observer status on the Council.[vii]

All that said, while boundary disputes are being successfully managed through diplomatic channels, conflict in the region is unlikely.  However, this situation will only remain this way so long as the Arctic Council and its observer nations, including the United Kingdom, continue to develop and deepen existing cooperative arrangements. With costs associated with exploiting hydrocarbons set to compare with space exploration at around US$250 to US$400bn it is clear that for those corporations and countries geared up to support these efforts there is a great deal of potential wealth to be generated.[viii]  For the UK, situated at the centre of a number of international networks including the insurance industry and with expertise in the Antarctic and North Sea oil exploration, the opportunity to shape and influence the future development of the Arctic should not be underestimated.


[i] The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy 2011, Working Paper, One Earth Future Foundation, 2011. See http://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/cost-of-piracy/economic

[ii] See the “Special Arctic Report”, the Economist, July 16, 2012.


[iii] For an authoritative description of the population density of the Arctic see, http://www.uarctic.org/AtlasMapLayer.aspx?m=648&amid=7251

[iv] e.g. see the latest campaign by Greenpeace, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/arctic-impacts/

[v] ‘Wikileaks Cables: 'Cold Peace' Among Resource-Hungry Arctic Nations’, Environmental News Service, May 18, 2011. http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/may2011/2011-05-18-01.html href="http://www.ens-newswire.com/ens/may2011/2011-05-18-01.html">

[vi] ‘Norway Questions China’s Temperament for Seat on Arctic Council’, Voice of America, June 5, 2012. http://blogs.voanews.com/state-department-news/2012/06/05/norway-questions-chinas-temperament-for-seat-on-arctic-council/

[vii] Valerie Criscione, ‘Was China behind cyber attack on Nobel Peace Prize website?’, Christian Science Monitor, October 27, 2010. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2010/1027/Was-China-behind-cyber-attack-on-Nobel-Peace-Prize-website.

[viii] ‘Arctic operations to cost “as much as space exploration” – Rosneft Chief’, Oil and Gas Technology, June 21, 2012. http://www.oilandgastechnology.net/upstream/arctic-operations-cost-%E2%80%98-much-space-exploration%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93-rosneft-chief-0


About the Author: Matthew Ford is a lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Hull.  He is organising a conference on the Arctic on the 13th and 14th September 2012. For more information visit the conference webpage (http://www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/politics/research/css/what_next_for_the_arctic.aspx)


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