Arctic: a future arena for military confrontation?

27 septembre 2017

For years, the Arctic is presented as the new El Dorado: its maritime routes and its strategic raw materials would be to revolutionize the world geography. Nevertheless, the desires of all sorts that converge on this ocean do not risk to spark things off and to make the region a new battlefield of the world great powers?

The northwest and northeast routes are thought of as geographical myths. For centuries, the world’s largest fleets want their ships to cruise in the sector to reduce the distances between the Atlantic and the Pacific: it is a 6,100 nautical miles journey by the northwest route from Seattle to Oslo (9,300 by Panama); and a 6,500 nautical miles journey by the northeast from Yokohama to Rotterdam (11,200 by Suez). Overall, the northern routes enable in theory to bring the nerve centres of the global economy closer. Until recently, these routes were almost totally impracticable and they hardly arouse envy of the affect countries. However the current melting of the ice pack could make the Arctic routes navigable 7.5 times longer: they were of 20 days in 2004, they could be of 150 days in 2080[1].

Furthermore, the powers show an interest in this region since the discovery of mineral wealth and hydrocarbons. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey reckoned that 10 % of the oil reserves and 29 % of the gas reserves to be discovered would be buried in the Arctic’s subsoil. The region already contains 13 % of the world oil reserves and 30 % of the world gas reserves. Without considering the fish resources and the mining resources: gold, diamonds, tin, lead, zinc, nickel, iron, uranium, abound in this continent and they play a crucial role in the high-tech industries.

Therefore, the relations between the Arctic States (U.S.A., Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia) are strained. In the past few years, territorial conflicts multiplied in order to appropriate this or that portion of the space, in many cases owing to the resources (fishing, ores, hydrocarbons). For instance, in 1976, a conflict has arisen between Canada and U.S.A. with regard to the maritime delimitation in the Beaufort Sea, while the American administration officially protested about the granting of Canadian oil concessions. The Canadian claim is based on a 1825 treaty ratified by Russia and Great-Britain. Canada took it over when Washington purchased Alaska, and the United States contests it because they apply the rule of equidistance. According to Canada, the frontier is actually located along the 144th meridian, “until the freezing sea”. The strains can take the form of disputes concerning the statute of the traffic of the maritime routes. The focal point of tension between those countries is the northwest route. Canada judges that this route is a part of its inland waters (according to the glossary of the Law of the Sea Treaty), in such a way that the government doesn’t have to accept the right of innocence passage for foreign vessels. On the contrary the United Sates think that the northwest route is an international strait, so that any ship without can take it – without any hindrance.

Nonetheless, those strains have never resulted in a generalized conflict. And for a good reason: the Arctic States chose to cooperate on the whole[2] and they are assisted by institutions like the Arctic Council, the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region and the Northern Forum. Thus in 2008 the five States met in Ilulissat (Greenland); they claimed again the primacy of international law concerning the extension of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and concerning navigation; several disputes were resolved. Even the conflict about the Barents Sea between Russia and Norway, mainly due to the halieutic resources the Arctic Ocean contains, has resulted in a compromise in 2010. Why does not the tension rise in this region so desired?

First, 95 % of the hydrocarbon resources are already into the current EEZ. Besides, even though the idea of sailing through the northern routes caught on as the ice pack melted, only one commercial transit through the northwest route was counted in 2013 and 2014. At the same time, Russia declared 71 transits through the northeast route in 2013, and only 31 in 2014. The access of those passages is indeed difficult: Russia uses icebreakers (with five nuclear icebreakers) in order to maintain the northeast route open and reachable. Additionally it’s not easy to circulate; it’s even impossible the best part of the year because of the ice; it requires very costly double hull ships, without taking into account the fact that insurance companies demand large sums of money to take such risks. Economic exploitation of Arctic’s resources and routes provides limited prospects for productivity growth.

However – maybe it represents the biggest risk of conflict – the Arctic Ocean is also strategic. The ice cap reduces to a minimum the acoustic, thermic and electromagnetic signature. So it provides perfect conditions for submarines. In this field, Russia – that pressures the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNO) to extend its EEZ by 1,2 million square kilometres – is the State that most clearly shows its ambition.  There are a lot of ex-Soviet nuclear submarine basis on the Arctic coast: Mourmensk, Arkhangelsk, Dickson, Nordvik, Providenia and Pevek. The Kremlin deployed drones and trained commando groups specialised in Arctic combat missions. Moscow also set an Arctic military command up. Moreover, in 2004, this competition between neighbours has received a new actor: a Chinese permanent basis (Huanghe) was inaugurated by Beijing in Norway, in the archipelago of Svalbard. The question is in what direction will go the current geopolitical tensions that permeate international relations well beyond the region: the way of compromise or belligerency.

[1] Voir Alain Louchet, Atlas des mers et océans. Conquêtes, tensions, explorations, Paris, Autrement, 2015, p. 42.

[2] Voir Frédéric Lasserre, « La géopolitique de l’Arctique : sous le signe de la coopération », dans François Gémenne (dir.), L’enjeu mondial. L’environnement, 2015.
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