The Arctic Circle; a place 4809 km from the Netherlands with sub-zero temperatures and generally, pretty inhospitable to humanity. So why in recent years have three world powers taken an interest in this “desolate wasteland” and what exactly has been going on there? Short answer: economic factors, control and climate change. Long answer? Keep reading.
Establishing and regulating borders is an important subject for any ruling nation, given you need to know what you have access to and can use for your benefit. Given that most of the Arctic Circle is ocean and ice, the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea comes into play. For those unfamiliar with it, the UNCLOS establishes how a nation’s coastal territory goes. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf, and the controls a nation has over its waters. A nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) spans 200 nautical miles (370km from the coastline (or baseline, depending on the nation) and the nation has the sole rights to all-natural resources within it. Generally, a nation's continental shelf falls within its EEZ but it can extend beyond it. If that is the case, then the nation has the right to mine or extract whatever natural resources that are below or on the seafloor but not within the water above it.
This matters because back in 2009, the US Geological estimated at the time that 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil may be found there. Up until the last few decades, these have largely been inaccessible or extremely difficult to access. But due to climate change, these resources are more accessible. Still extremely difficult, but not impossible. Climate change has also made the arctic sea easier to navigate, as the summer season has lasted longer every year and so the Northern Passages can be used for longer. Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and the United States all have various claims to areas within the arctic, with some competing claims regarding the North Pole. China has also taken a special interest due to the natural resources available in the Arctic and the Northern Passages, which could potentially shorten the trading distance between China and North America.
For roughly the past decade, Russia has been steadily building up its presence in the arctic. This was been done by refurbishing military bases, creating new ones, conducting military exercises, expanding their fleet and winterizing their military, and also having a few civilian populations in place. In turn, Canada and the United States have also taken measures to increase their presence in the Arctic. Canada, in particular, has a sizeable civilian population in the form of the Inuit people and other indigenous groups, and has long since considered the arctic an important aspect of its identity. Denmark placed Greenland at the top of its security risks a few years back. Since mid-2010s Denmark, Canada and Russia have had competing claims over the North Pole. Each country has done its part to provide evidence and attempt to solidify its claim, with Russia even planting a flag along the seabed in 2007. The United States, on the other hand, is comparatively behind the rest in terms of military presence or even involvement in the arctic. All those involved have taken to building up their icebreaker fleets in recent years which are large ships used to break up sea ice, thus allowing other ships to navigate arctic waters or allowing the rescue of a stranded vessel. While not militaristic in nature, control of ice breakers does allow influence in the region given how important they can be for accessing the Arctic.
This takes us back to the two Northern Passages: The Northwest Passage, which passes the Canadian, American, and Danish coastlines, and the Northeast Passage (or Northern Sea Route depending on which part you are referring to) which follows the Russian and Norwegian coastlines. These passages allow access to and from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and are generally a shorter transit time when compared with the Suez Cannel. When accessible is it also a much easier passage for heavy tankers than the narrow Suez. A large vessel is unlikely to get trapped sideways unless the ice freezes over.
Now, control over the passages is determined by the UNCLOS, the Arctic Council, and other relevant parties. The Arctic Council is made up of the arctic nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US) to promote cooperation and conduct assessments and recommendations for the region. The council does not oversee any military matters. Moving on, the Northwest Passage has faced the most issues. Canada classifies the passage as part of its internal parts since its territory includes various islands in the Arctic Circle. The US, China, and others argue that the passage is an international passage or strait. The major effect of this is that according to the UNCLOS if the passage is part of Canada’s internal waters then they have the right to control the passage and close it if need be. If the passage is classified as an International strait then Canada would still have the ability to enforce certain laws and legalities but it would no longer hold the power to close the passage. While the US and Canada have yet to come to any conclusion regarding this, China’s declaration to send ships along the passage could change the situation. Canada has a history of being firm in its defense of its northern territories, which can be seen in its feud with the US and has not taken kindly to this development.
And that’s the situation in the Arctic, a region dotted in potential whether good or bad. With climate change on the rise and tensions increasing in the rest of the world, the situation is every evolving and ever-changing.