’ARCTIC’’ The New Geopolitical Flash-Point and Battle Ground for Wealth. -By Kiberu Malik | The Arctic covers roughly 14 million square kilometres of water and solid ice, it’s almost the size of Antarctica for most of its part the region is inhospitable. In summer the weather can rise above the melting point yet in winter it can plunge down to negative (-45 degrees) Celsius.
This situation however is not to last in the coming decades’ climate change will make the Arctic passages and resources become more accessible. And given the abundance of resources and critical trade routes, it should come as no surprise that the Arctic will turn into a new geopolitical flashpoint.
Geography plays a decisive role in shaping the interests of nations thus it stands the reason that when geographic conditions change national interests shifts as well. This is especially true when one considers the effects of climate change, Satellite images of the past decade show indisputable evidence of receding Arctic ice, this carries profound environmental consequences such as the migration and extinction of certain mammals and fish species! However, the diminishing ice will also have far-reaching consequences for the Maldives the Netherlands and Bangladesh.
As sea levels are bound to rise these countries will face increased flooding yet perhaps the most profound consequences will be geopolitically using geology based probabilistic methodology the US geological survey estimates that the Article holds 90 billion barrels of oil, 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. This is proportionate to roughly 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of natural gas reserves all in all the Arctic holds about 22% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources!
Energy giants such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Rosneft are already competing for drilling licenses the potential environmental consequences however dreadful they may be are unlikely to stop these multinational companies. However, the extraction of hydrocarbon resources is only feasible when the energy prices are right for instance with the current low energy prices the operation costs would be higher than the market prices meaning without sufficient profitable projections it would be very hard for companies to operate year-round.
The claims of these companies and their respective nations are based on the UN convention on the law of the sea which oversees the Arctic region these signatories to this convention have an exclusive economic zone stretching 370-kilo meters from the coastal baseline within this area states have sovereign rights to explore and exploit living and non-living resources, and in certain circumstances, a nation can extend its exclusive economic zone to 650 kilometres from the coastline if it can prove that the continental shelf extends beyond the standard deviation. Basically, by submitting scientific evidence to measure the continental shelf one can extend the exclusive economic zone and thus claim more resources and waters. Yet by calculating the continental shelf the territorial disputes become even more complicated they already are!
Denmark, Norway, Canada Russia and the United States have also bettered their respective continental shelf claims to the united nations these claims overlap one another and it’s up to the United Nations Commission on the limits of the continental shelf to determine whether the claims are justified this legal body exists of dozens of international experts in geophysics hydrography, geology and other disciplines.
In the past the inhospitable conditions made the legal disputes meaningless, however, by 2007 the Arctic ice cover was nearly 50 per cent lower than in the 1950s, as climate change continues to open up the Arctic territorial claims and disputes will have to be settled by law. The legal framework sounds reassuring but the complication is that the United States is not a signatory to the law of the sea Washington objects to the treaty because it’s unfavourable to American economic interests for instance the total value of all the raw materials in the American Arctic is estimated to be about 8 trillion dollars, by comparison, the value in Russia’s Arctic is estimated to exceed 22 trillion dollars. Washington finds this unfair and thus rejects to sign the convention on the law of the sea.
USA/ America’s non-participation could be viewed in two ways;
1). Since the US is a non-signatory to the treaty it has by law not claimed an exclusive economic zone,
2). Washington’s absence in the agreement means that the United States doesn’t recognize the agreed-upon exclusive economic zones of the other parties and thus reserves the right to act whenever it deems necessary. The uncertainty over Washington’s position is viewed with great suspicion by Moscow! Putin believes that the vast sum of resources and values is worth fighting for as a result, the Kremlin sees no other way to discourage American involvement other than establishing a substantial military presence in the Arctic.
However, it’s not just natural resources that are driving the Arctic disputes, in fact, most nations understand that exploiting the Arctic is not feasible in the near future especially not with the current energy prices! Instead, the immediate ambitions focus on dominating the Arctic trade. For instance, the maritime traffic between Europe and East Asia is expected to shift towards the Arctic ocean by 2040, a milestone was set in 2014 when a cargo vessel went through the Northwest passage without the escort of an icebreaker this route which connects the markets of East Asia and Europe through the Canadian Arctic archipelago is about 40 per cent shorter than the Panama canal, moreover the waters of the Northwest passages are deeper than the Panama route and this allows for vessels to carry more cargo. Ultimately the Northwest passages are shorter cheaper and through fuel savings yield fewer greenhouse emissions.
It is predicted that by 2040 the Northwest passages will be open for about two months a year, with the aid of special-purpose ships such as icebreakers the opening of the passages could be extended for a few more months from a legal framework these passages are part of Canada’s internal waters, However, due to its geopolitical value the US, Russia and the number of European countries dispute Ottawa sovereignty over the north-west passages and claim it as international straits. At present Canada is engaged in scientific-technical and legal proceedings needed to delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf.
However, Canada is likely to concede against the combined diplomatic power of the United States, Europe and Russia.
Another corridor that connects the markets of East Asia and Europe and will become more accessible in coming years is the Northeast passage also known as the Northern sea route. This passage runs along the Russian Arctic coast from the Bering Strait along Siberia to the Bering Sea and the North Sea. Just seven years ago no ships navigated through this passage however in 2013 71 ships had received permission to travel through the Northern sea route. On average the Russian corridor is about 13 days shorter than the Suez Canal. As of 2018, the passage is open for several months a year but in 2015 the traffic dropped to 18 vessels due to the ongoing sanctions against Moscow.
Other issues shipping companies faced in this passage include higher insurance premiums restrictions on vessel size a lack of emergency response facilities and outdated navigation systems. In other words, Russia still has a long way to go and lots of investments to make either way it’s expected that by the end of the century the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free during the summer! Ultimately the potential of the Russian and Canadian passages is enormous, but the benefits are unlikely to yield before mid-century in the Long term the maritime traffic between East Asia, North America and Europe will shift towards the Arctic meaning traditional corridors such as the Panama and Suez Canal will suffer considerable losses in revenues.
As access through the Arctic passages becomes easier three objectives will drive the geopolitical needs of the Arctic nations. And they are as follows;
1). To establish authority over the new trading routes to reap the financial benefits.
2). To establish military bases to ensure the authority of the new trading routes.
3). Exploitation of the region’s hydrocarbon resources. However, this will depend on the energy prices.
In 2016 there were nine legal disputes in the Arctic ocean all of them were legally complicated but none of the involved parties are determined as Russia.
The Arctic remains a centre of future geopolitics.