Russian television contacted me recently asking me to go on a program about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources – especially oil and gas – that become accessible when it’s gone.
The media love conflict, and there’s no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flash-points and what are the strategies? It’s great fun to speculate about possible wars. In this case, it’s also nonsense.
There are three separate “resources” in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits. And in the water in between, there is the planet’s last unfished ocean.
The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes that the Northwest Passage between Canada’s Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it’s all much ado about nothing.
The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia’s “Northern Sea Route” will get the traffic, because it’s already open and much safer to navigate.
Then there’s the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed – but from a military point of view, there’s only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.
Canada has boundary disputes with its eastern and western neighbors in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark.
In the Bering Strait, the Russian Duma refuses to ratify the seabed boundary that was signed by the United States and the old Soviet Union in 1990. However, the legal uncertainty caused by the dispute is likelier to deter future investment in drilling there than to lead to war.
And then there was the seabed boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between Norway and Russia.
Which leaves the fish, and it’s hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world’s fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out.
The countries with Arctic coastlines can only preserve this resource by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there too, with agreed catch limits, since it is mostly international waters. They will be driven to cooperate, in their own interests.
So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact that the ice IS melting, which will speed global warming and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap, raising sea levels worldwide by seven meters (23 ft). But that’s a problem for another day.
– Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.