A New Security for the Arctic

Credit: The Arctic Institute

Discussion of the melting Arctic tends to revolve around future economic opportunities and environmental issues, neglecting security concerns which are both very real and very imminent. There is currently no international body set up to monitor and ameliorate security concerns among the eight Arctic circle countries; the Arctic Council’s primary foci lie in the environmental and scientific fields, and it has been mandated to stay away from military matters. I will argue here that it is high time that the Arctic Circle countries come together to create such a body, pre-empting inevitable clashes over shipping and territorial claims. This new body must be backed by international law norms such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The opening up of the Arctic, despite being an unfortunate consequence of global warming, will inevitably present a unique geopolitical and economic moment for the world. At this current stage, unreinforced ships are incapable of passing through even in the summer months, but it is only a matter of time until passage is both normalised and frequent. Indeed, the Arctic Sea is projected to become completely ice-free in summers within the next century. Thus, many shipping companies are already starting to think about how to best make use of new, shorter passages from Asia to Europe. The Northeast Passage between Alaska and Russia, for example, will shorten transit time from Asia to Europe and North America by approximately one third. Currently, a ship travelling the current route from Shanghai will pass through Singapore and the Suez Canal, travelling approximately 3000 extra miles than if it went through the Northeast Passage. The most obvious outcome of this shift is economic—but a deeper and more problematic implication is the unfavourable consequences for nations who are already deeply ingrained in the global shipping fabric. The melting of the Arctic is likely to have security and economic implications for many nations and peoples far beyond the icy swaths of the Far North.

The highly lucrative nature of the many potential economic opportunities of the Arctic, including shipping and oil drilling, has created a need for environmental regulation in the region. Fortunately, a body has already been established to monitor these potentialities. The Arctic Council members hail from the eight Arctic littoral nations—Russia, Denmark, Finland, Canada, Sweden the United States, Iceland, and Norway—with permanent participants from indigenous groups in the High North. The Arctic Council states that the magnitude of temperature increase due to the greenhouse effect will be at least twice as severe in the Arctic compared to the rest of the world—hence the urgency for environmental monitoring in the highly volatile region. On the other hand, the Council has also been involved in setting up two important agreements: the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, which were set up in 2009 and 2011 respectively. The former agreement deals with the very pertinent issues of search and rescue—particularly pressing considering the serious communications gap currently present in the Arctic (due to a lack of satellite coverage, large swaths lack the essential GPS and AIS systems required for navigation) and the need for extensive seabed mapping for underwater hazard detection. Important to note, however, is that the Arctic Council is not involved with security concerns such as trade and border disputes. It’s 1996 founding document explicitly states that it “should not deal with matters related to military security.” Thus the question of Arctic security remains unanswered.

At a talk in Washington, D.C. this past summer, Seth Myers, a senior fellow at the Arctic Institute, argued that the Arctic is like a mirror of the global security environment. If this is true, it is worrying that these security relations are not yet institutionalised and formally acknowledged. In the context of recent geopolitical tensions in Crimea and the South China Sea, it seems more urgent than ever that potential territorial disputes and other kinds of security issues are dealt with directly in the High North. Some might argue that NATO could extend operations northward, but NATO has itself rejected such a possibility. In 2013, the then Secretary General of NATO remarked that “the High North is a region that is of strategic interest to the Alliance. But so are the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. There are many regions—but there is only one NATO.” Indeed, NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept does not include mention of the Arctic. NATO is already stretched too thin, the argument goes; thus the security void in the northernmost reaches of our planet.

Denmark has taken some of the first steps towards creating a new security body. It released its Strategic Review in May this year with a major recommendation focusing on exploring the possibility of a new forum for Arctic security. However, some serious challenges lie ahead. One of the greatest barriers to establishing a new security organisation is a lack of precedent: rarely does a new security organisation develop without a crisis like a war, or some other act of aggression. We are also without any template or much prior experience with a security situation so deeply tied to environmental factors. What would a collective security agreement in the Arctic Circle look like? There are several important decisions about the scope that would first need to be made: would such an agreement include only the eight Arctic Circle countries, or also those who have vested interests in the region, such as China and Singapore? Should a security agreement concern itself with environmental issues, or should that be left to the Arctic Council? Discussions on these matters would likely be difficult, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are necessary.

A final (and often neglected) point concerns the role of international law. International law may just be the missing piece of the puzzle regarding the creation of legitimacy and maintenance some form of accountability by members of a potential Arctic security agreement. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, will be critical for defining the boundaries of territory that Arctic Circle countries lay claim over, for instance, and will dictate resource exploitation and terms of navigation within territorial waters for those states. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the United States must ratify UNCLOS; as a major player in Arctic disputes, it cannot expect to hold a respected place at the negotiating table without acknowledging the importance of the Convention. Perhaps such a move could set in motion the first positive contingencies for the building of a new Arctic security body.