by Nathan Ren ’15 Originally written and published in the 2014-2015 edition of the Meridian Journal
Political division in the Arctic, the last frontier for international cooperation
The Arctic is a mirror, reflecting our interests back at us. Security advisors from the Arctic States of the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark see it as a border region with vulnerable and indefensible coasts. Scientists see a doomsday clock, where each tick sounds off the collapse of an ancient ice- shelf or the extinction of a beloved furry animal. Corporations and energy industry oligarchs see it as a treasure trove of fossil fuels, waiting to be extracted. The Arctic illustrates a region rife with issues and opportunities, with only an intergovernmental forum known as the Arctic Council to juggle these challenges. Recently, Asian states have recognized their stakes in the Arctic, and their admittance as observer members of the council have created division in political fora that otherwise champion’s inclusivity, multilateralism and transparency.
A melting winter wonderland
What’s even worth fighting over? The Arctic has an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil reserves. If that isn’t enough economic incentive, since the 1950s, the Arctic has lost 50% of its mass, creating ice-free summers for traders and fishermen. This retreat of permafrost has reshaped the geography of the region, forcing policymakers to redraw their maps. Moreover, new transarctic routes are projected to shorten trade distances from Asia to Europe by roughly 40%.
The main cleavage between the two camps rests in their different perspectives on who owns the Arctic. Ideological differences are much harder to reconcile, and creates conflicts colored by irrational rhetoric and policy. This sets a dangerous foundation for discussion, and though Russia and Canada have hesitantly allowed observer status to the Asian Five, their concerns have not been diluted in the slightest.
This political division is problematic for two reasons. First, it presents an obstacle for further decision-making in a volatile region that sometimes requires rapid responses and limited discourse. Second, the Arctic Council isn’t constitutionally equipped to resolve security or defense concerns. It was formed to provide a voice to indigenous peoples in the Arctic, rather than mediate state interests.
In order for the Council to perform its duty, Russia and Canada must re-examine their behavior, and stop operating on rusted zero- sum logic. Asian states have a legitimate stake in the region, and deserve a seat at the table. When it comes to the Arctic’s stability, the stakes are high, and there is no time for debate over unprecedented fear. It is not Asian interests, but Arctic mismanagement that will lead to global catastrophe.
Dancing on thin ice
Is Canada and Russia’s trepidation of Asian states in the Arctic informed by fictional fears or legitimate concerns?
Canada is spearheading a movement to dislodge an Asian presence in the Arctic Council with a far less friendly partner in Russia. It is quite unlike the liberal, peace-loving, multilateral Canadians to oppose any kind of inclusive action at a regional level. Yet the Canadian government has viewed Asian state inclusion as a threat to existing Arctic state sovereignty. Their concern specifically centered on fears of ‘hidden’ Asian agendas and the possible dilution of existing Arctic ‘voices’. But what does Canada have in common with Russia? One would be very hard pressed to find evidence of their collusion in any other situation outside of the Arctic. Canada and Russia only agree insofar as they think Asian states will threaten Arctic sovereignty, although they come to this conclusion through very different means.
It takes two to tango
Canada is threatened by rhetoric emerging from within Asian states, rather than the official sentiments of the Asian governments. Russia is concerned that Asian investment in their Northern Sea Route (NSR) will give them reason to claim ownership of it. Both states believe that increased Asian involvement in the Arctic will lead to an erosion of their legitimate] Biased ownership of the region. But while these concerns are founded on potential realities, they are not based on realistic circumstances or past behaviors. Moreover, Russian and Canadian rights to the Arctic are enforced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), leaving no room for legal maneuvering by Asian states.
Both Canada and Russia have extremely low investment in their Arctic assets. Canada has put almost no infrastructure or economic development funds into their northern territories. Russia on the other hand, understands Asian economic intentions, and despite desperately wanting to improve Sino-Russo relations, is opposed to sharing the NSR. Russia has always had sovereignty insecurity, yet despite having more landmass bordering the Arctic than Canada, is more concerned with practical control than encroachment.
A wounded bear, in pride and finance
What grinds Russia’s gears the most is its financial weakness and inability to fund itself. Previously utilized as a Soviet domestic trade route, the NSR has the capability of shortening Asian trade to Europe by a aforementioned drastic 40%. This route is claimed by Russia as part of its sovereign space, and Asian states completely recognize this. Unfortunately, Russia is completely bankrupt with regard to Arctic investment. Despite setting up multiple expensive projects to develop their Arctic assets, a lack of financing has left most of these developments permanently in the pipeline. Due to their reckless aggression in Eastern Europe and the American shale revolution, what financial burden the Russian energy sector used to alleviate has now returned in full force.
The NSR is an economic dream, realized only through massive investment and large-scale infrastructure development. If Russia would accept Asian assistance on a route that they maintain practical control over, it could be hugely beneficial. Russia can’t commit to the overhead for the NSR as it is, and if they bankroll the project through deep Chinese and Japanese pockets, it could become a huge economic crutch in an otherwise perilous time for the Russian economy. Practical control is not sacrificed by foreign investment. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive when you have the legislative power to exert your sovereignty.
For Canada and Russia to assume that foreign investment will threaten their power base, is quite an ironic sentiment. Western and Soviet powers spent the better half of the 20th century exerting their influences on Asian states. The fact that they now refuse to attract investment from the same areas they exploited is a notion steeped in hypocrisy and imperialist bogus.
A matter of perspective
In order to understand exactly why Canadian and Russian sentiments are outdated and hypocritical, we can compare how the US and her Nordic allies approached the same situation differently. Combined, the United States, Norway and Denmark possess a territorial claim comparable to that of Russia’s and Canada’s. In fact, Norway herself has the 3rd largest territorial stake in the Arctic. Norway even possesses similar transarctic shipping chokehold points.
Why then, did they support inclusivity when Canada and Russia scrutinized it?
The Nordic states acknowledge Asian interest as permanent, and finds it better to integrate them into regional affairs, rather than risk ostracizing them. If the Arctic Council were to leave the Asian states in the cold, there would be a potential for those states to pursue unilateral methods in achieving their ends.
The US is more interested in sharing responsibilities and remaining inclusive about the Arctic. They have the most experience with Chinese expansionist aggression in the Asia- Pacific. Yet they still recognize that Chinese geopolitical interests have no dangerous implications in the Arctic.
China: Panda or Dragon?
China is not without fault in spurring fears within the Arctic Council. Among other rising powers,China has developed a formidable navy. Maritime power and sea wealth has determined geopolitical power differentials between great powers and small powers since boats were created. It should follow then, that despite the best of intentions, Asian naval presences would create friction in the Arctic. More often than not, merchant ships are accompanied by some kind of escort, as such is the tradition when navigating the Strait of Malacca or the Suez Canal. This is due to threats of international piracy, and there is very little evidence suggesting pirates would navigate near inhospitable waters bordering powerful, militarily competent states like Russia or the US.
Russia even suggested that Chinese ships guarding merchant vessels would potentially clash with NATO. nothing to gain from butting heads with the West. Its nature has been from the beginning to extract resources and exploit economic opportunities. Chinese behavior in Africa is completely indicative of her tendencies to favor economic exploitation over diplomatic favor. However, there is a voice in China being perceived as threatening in the Arctic Council.
China has begun to call itself a “near- Arctic State”, something every country could claim as sea levels begin to impact them. But this isn’t unique to Asian states, and isn’t the voice that is concerning Canada. Domestic media outlets and citizens in Asia are voicing thoughts like “no one owns the Arctic” and “the Arctic is no one’s backyard.” Mostly emerging from the Chinese State’s media outlet Xinhua, these voices are challenging existing Arctic sovereignty. These are threats completely unaligned with official sentiment.Chinese officials and other Asian officials continually show deference to existing power structures in the Arctic, echoing only their economic interests.
A matter of precedence
If you can count on China for anything, you can count on her unwavering support for “sovereignty”. Again and again China will veto UN Security resolutions to intervene in foreign lands. Whether it’s from Sudan to Syria, China never wants to support or set an international precedent of infringing sovereignty. However, China’s aggressive behavior in the South-China Sea and diaoyu/senkaku islands signify a changing heart. An examination of those anomalies still indicates a lack of credible threat for Chinese engagement in the Arctic.
Modeling Chinese behavior after their odd aggression in the East, we would see two conditions emerge in how they tackle the Arctic. China would firstly be laying claim to the area outright. Their claims in the Pacific, though outrageous, are grounded in a map illustrating the furthest reaches of the Qing dynasty. They seek to reclaim what the Qing dynasty had owned, and therefore justify their aggressive behavior. China’s behavior over the island dispute with Japan is completely socio-political. China has not laid claim to any sovereign rights of the Arctic, so that can’t be a legitimate concern.
Secondly, China would defy the existing norms, institutions and legislation over the Arctic. Instead, we witnessed China apply for observers status to a Council that requires one to sign UNCLOS and behave according to its rules. After rigorous scrutiny, China passed and won their bid. It appears as though China is respecting the institutions and existing governance mechanisms in the Arctic. They can however do more. China needs to formulate an official Arctic policy for transparency purposes, commit to Chinese corporate social responsibility and overall engage deeper in climate change issues.
Lean into it
Despite what appears to be legitimate concerns about Asian inclusion in the Arctic Council, Canada and Russia are more concerned with irrational fears than matters of precedence or reality. Concerns of foreign investment in a region they have not even put effort into suggest a contradictory behavior. Moreover, the NSR, which is so hotly contested due to its economic significance, will not manifest without massive infrastructure projects and investment. This kind of funding can be taken from Asia to bolster security and economic development in Russia, Canada and the US. There would be no reason to refuse money when the law is on their side.
Not only is including Asian states beneficial to the Council’s legitimacy or opportunities for foreign direct investment, but it’s also true that the Arctic is a global commons. No one state owns a global entity like the Arctic. If Antarctica is a neutral body, the main landmass of the Arctic should be considered the same.
It would be ignorant to consider the Arctic’s volatile climate change as a regional issue. The states most affected by the negative consequences of sea level rise are states near the equator or in the global south. Asian states rightfully have a stake in the Arctic, as their future relies on understanding the significance of global climate change.
The Arctic is a global concern with regional sovereign claims. This shouldn’t hinder economic assistance or multilateral efforts. Canada and Russia need to grow up and practice what they founded the Arctic Council to preach, principles of multilateralism and inclusivity.
Things are heating up
The Arctic will continue melting regardless of petty squabbles over land rights and practical control. Ignorance in the face of precedence and reality is creating roadblocks to multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. As it stands, the region is already destabilized and has past the tipping point of no return. Obstacles to international involvement in a region with international impacts should be shattered and thrown by the wayside.
Existing legal and regulatory structures cannot meet the needs for protecting Arctic peoples and environments. Potential pathways for Asian states to contribute to these great challenges include and are not limited to scientific cooperation, public-private partnerships, negotiation of binding agreements that are not limited to oil spill response and search & rescue. Encouraging financial contributions from Asian observer states could support indigenous health, education and science.
Bring your A-game
The assumption that the Arctic Council will be able to operationally respond to the Arctic crises is also shaky. Though we’ve examined why Russian and Canadian intuitions about Asian inclusivity is unfounded, we need to also address whether or not the Arctic Council is a proper medium to funnel international cooperation through.
The council was initially created to multilaterally discuss matters of scientific research, navigation, indigenous rights and circumpolar biodiversity, formulating into two primary goals of promoting environmental protection and bolstering sustainable development. As mentioned at the start, it is not equipped to handle large-scale crises or security issues. Russian and Canadian paranoia was most likely stoked by the Council’s inability to fix any major concerns.
The Council can improve its state in three ways. First, the Council can make state financial contributions to scientific, environmental and infrastructure projects mandatory. Second, hard-law implementation can make the Arctic Council a formidable and necessary force in overseeing Arctic affairs. States cannot be held accountable without a legitimate tangible backlash. Third, formally associating with the United Nations can bolster legitimacy and hard power, only if the Council were to remain autonomous from the UN’s bureaucratic tedious- ness.
The Council has a ways to go before it can be seriously considered the de-facto decision- making body it needs to be. Fictional fears born from legitimate concerns still hold great influence, but with greater inclusivity on the horizon and increased cooperation, we could yet save ourselves.