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Cold, Hard Facts: Why the Arctic Is the World's Hottest Frontier
By Martin Breum

OFFICIALS from the foreign ministries of the Arctic countries often joke about how the Arctic Council has become the most popular club in the world. In the course of just a few years, scores of nations outside the Arctic have asked to join this exclusive club, which was until recently a rather anonymous forum mainly for scientists deep into the study of Arctic fauna, climate change and the well-being of indigenous peoples in the very far north.


Climate change has turned all this on its head. No longer on the global periphery, the Arctic is now one of the most vibrant and dynamic regions in the world. Abundant oil, gas, minerals and new shipping routes from Asia to Europe and North America are attracting businesses and strategists from every corner of the world. Hillary Clinton, then the world's most powerful foreign secretary, sent a strong message confirming this transformation in May 2011 when she flew to Nuuk, the tiny capital of Greenland, to attend a meeting of the Arctic Council. She was the first US Secretary of State ever to attend such a meeting. Since then, it has all been fast forward: In May 2013, the eight Arctic states — Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States and the indigenous Arctic peoples within the Arctic Council, bestowed on China, Japan, India and South Korea permanent observer status at the council, a prize China in particular had coveted for years.


Russian and Canada had long vehemently opposed such a broadening of the council, but pressure was building and a compromise was reached. The wealthy Asian nations were allowed in while the European Union was asked to bide its time until Brussels and Ottawa sorted out an old dispute over the sale of sealskins, banned by the EU out of animal welfare concerns.





To Be or Not To Be Arctic


After the admission of the Asian observers, old hands among Arctic officials recognize that the council urgently needs to find new ways of doing business if it is to get any work done at all. They worry over the ability of the Arctic states to conduct serious, hardcore and delicate negotiations when the room also contains eager listeners from China and the rest of Asia. How will US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, and their colleagues from Canada and the five Nordic countries find space to deal efficiently with urgent matters and at the same time accommodate all the new faces and their often legitimate concerns?


This will not be easy. Billions of dollars and vital strategic interests are at stake. A whole new ocean is opening up to human traffic, trade and commerce. This has never happened before in the history of man, and the Arctic states are fighting a hard battle to secure their interests. They have invested strenuous diplomatic efforts in building a united front against those who say that the Arctic should not be only for those who happen to live there, but for all of humanity. Chinese scholars, for instance, have long argued that the Arctic should be regarded like the moon: Open for all to explore and exploit. The Arctic countries have mobilized against this notion, pointing stiffly at their maps and, in particular, at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS, as this convention is known, stipulates who owns what when it comes to matters of seas and oceans — including all that lies north of the coast lines of the Arctic states.


n the Arctic capitals (most of which, ironically, lie far south of the Arctic), the governments argue that under UNCLOS they alone hold legal rights and sovereignty in the Arctic region. They acknowledge that China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and scores of other nations may have legitimate interests in climate change and the development of Arctic shipping routes, fisheries, oil, gas and minerals. But the Arctic governments will never regard the non-Arctics as equals in the region. China may call itself a "near-Arctic state," but this does not change anything, according to the Arctic governments. They make a clear distinction between interests and legal rights and sovereignty, which they claim for themselves. Sovereignty and legal rights, in short, are more than mere "interests." They have invited China and others to voice their interests, but only if they recognize the Arctic states as the rightful owners of the region.


So far, this arrangement seems to be acceptable to almost all interested parties. No Chinese ministers or other high ranking officials are publicly making any references to the moon analogy. On the contrary, China has been careful to courteously wriggle its way into the Arctic without upsetting anybody. Even the representatives of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund seem to have dropped all notions of new, international treaties to protect the Arctic or that the UN should get more deeply involved in protection of the Arctic environment. Environmentalists do not like the fact that the eight Arctic countries, all keen on exploiting the region's riches, are also in charge of securing, for instance, proper environmental standards for their own oil rigs now dotting the icy Arctic waters. Politicians in the European Parliament for some years argued on the side of the environmentalists, but the Arctic states have been successful in killing debate on possible alternatives.


As this was being written, 30 Greenpeace activists had just been released on bail and are still awaiting trial in Russia after their attempt in September 2013 to board a Russian Gazprom oil drilling platform in the Pechora Sea. Greenpeace claims that its campaign to protect the Arctic is "the environmental struggle of our time." But while Greenpeace and others may perhaps be able to scare some oil conglomerates away from heavy Arctic investments, few believe that Greenpeace can disturb the greater balance of power in the Arctic so painstakingly defended by the Arctic governments.


In the Arctic Council, therefore, a clear hierarchy will be the order of the day for the foreseeable future: The eight Arctic states will form an inner circle of power and influence. They will settle the more important issues among themselves and only afterwards will they engage with representatives from the new Asian observers and those from France, Italy and other European states, who have been observers for some time.


China and the Indigenous Peoples


As the international forum in the Arctic, the council is where power is negotiated and influence is peddled, where joint concerns are discussed and businesses will gather in a soon-to-be-established Circumpolar Business Forum. But this is all quite new. The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as anything but a vehicle for power-brokers. More appropriate for that period, it was a quiet, low-key channel for loose-ended discussions of Arctic matters between Russia, which was still edging its way out of the ruins of the Soviet Union, on one side, and on the other side the seven western Arctic states, all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The mandate of the council, stipulated in the Ottawa Declaration of 1996, focused on scientific study of the Arctic environment, in particular. The Council was given only scant powers to negotiate anything that would compel governments to solve concrete problems.


Today, all that evasiveness is evaporating. The mandate of the council still formally rules out discussing security matters or hardcore topics like borders. But as the significance of the Arctic mushrooms, it is unlikely that senior diplomats such as Kerry and Lavrov will refrain from discussing core Arctic interests in the council.


Also, the Arctic Council has twice made formal decisions that are legally binding on Arctic governments. In Nuuk in 2011, an agreement to boost co-operation in the event of accidents at sea was signed, and in the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden in May 2013, an agreement to boost co-operation in the event of Arctic oil-spills was seen as yet another sign of the council's increasing clout.


Not surprisingly, many now wonder what to expect next from this emerging powerhouse. The Arctic foreign ministers like to explain that the council is not a decision-making body, but rather a discussion-making forum. This is a bit confusing since the same ministers also now hail the council as the instigator of two important, binding agreements.


On more solid ground, the Arctic ministers also weigh in on the role of indigenous Arctic peoples. This is where the Arctic Council is truly unique. It grants wide-ranging powers to the northern peoples of the Arctic, even if these are not governments per se. The Inuits of Greenland, Canada and Russia; the Sami people of Norway, Sweden and Finland; the Indians of Canada and Alaska; and the many indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic are all represented in the Arctic Council through six groups officially designated as permanent participants.


These groups do not have voting rights, but the council works through consensus and no serious decision has ever been reached, and is not likely to be reached in the near future, without the explicit consent of these groups. This, of course, places China and the new Asian state observers in a rather peculiar position. They will have to recognize that local, ethnic minorities in the Arctic states have greater influence in the council than they do. Also, they will have to accept that 11 international non-governmental organizations such as the World Association of Reindeer Herders and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as nine intergovernmental bodies like the Red Cross and the Nordic Council of Ministers, also hold observer status — on an equal footing with state observers.


This is obviously quite messy and clearly not designed for efficient dealings with urgent, international matters. The Arctic Council as of this year has a permanent secretariat with a staff of about 10 in the small town of Tromsø in northern Norway. It also has its own small budget but is far from being a large, efficient international organization trained to facilitate intricate negotiations. After the Kiruna meeting in May 2013, the two leading academic observers of the council's development, Philip E. Steinberg of Durham University and Claus Dodds of the University of London, aptly described the situation:


The AC's unique organizational structure, while granting an unusually high degree of legitimacy to permanent participants representing the region's indigenous peoples, creates a troublesome situation for the increasing number of actors from outside the region who are [or who wish to be] intensively involved in the region's economic development or its environmental stewardship. Unable to channel their views through a state with full membership in the council, such entities, whether states or non-states, are all jumbled together in the amorphous [and voiceless] category of "observer."


Already, however, the new observers from China and elsewhere are changing the ways of the council. Indeed, the change is so rapid that some veterans of the council are worried. Only days before the high-level meeting in Kiruna, for instance, the political leadership of Greenland announced that it would boycott not only the meeting in Kiruna but all further dealings with the Arctic Council, including the council's many scientific working groups. Greenland, which is not a state but enjoys self-rule within the Kingdom of Denmark, was annoyed that the number of its customary seats at the tables at the council's meetings had been cut. Greenland was used to being represented with its own flag and chair — even if Greenland is officially represented by Denmark. Greenland felt that its status was threatened.


he problem was quietly settled after the Kiruna meeting, but the boycott illustrated just how the indigenous peoples of the Arctic fear that their special status will be watered down to accommodate more powerful, new entrants.


The Arctic Council has several urgent matters at hand: Oil and gas, for instance, are high on the agenda; Russia, for one, is already heavily dependent on income from its Arctic resources, extracted increasingly with the aid of Chinese capital. But no common, binding standards for oil rigs or platforms, or even spill-prevention, are in place. Fisheries in the Arctic Ocean may soon become attractive to fleets from all over the northern hemisphere, but no comprehensive regulations are in place. The new Arctic shipping routes from Asia north of Russia to northern Europe and the route from Asia north of Canada are quickly becoming more accessible.


The first Chinese cargo ship made its way to Europe north of Russia just a few months ago, but search and rescue capabilities, satellite tracking and other facilities are still lacking. Some critics worry that military developments in the region are starting to look like an arms race, and Russia and its neighbors still have to draw clear borderlines in the central parts of the Arctic Ocean. Add to this the challenges that the new Asian observers will bring to the table. Who has the right to sail where and with what kinds of vessels and goods? On what conditions will Asians be able to share in the climate science of the Arctic? What should co-operation look like in the Arctic when the ice is gone?


Most observers, at least in the Arctic countries, agree that the modern Arctic so far is primarily a story of successful co-operation and inclusion. Some, like the prominent Canadian scholar Michael Byers, even argue that the rest of the world can learn from the way new governance structures are being built in the Arctic, even if environmental groups say that regulation lags far behind economic activity. Meanwhile, the Arctic Council, the unique diplomatic instrument in the middle of it all, is valiantly struggling to keep up.


Martin Breum is a TV anchor with the Danish Broadcasting Service and the author of When the Ice Disappears (in Danish only). In 2012, he travelled to the North Pole with the Danish-Greenlandic science expedition, LOMROG III. His website is

Back to Issue
    One important consequence of climate change and the melting of Arctic ice is the emergence of this frigid region as the world’s next great economic frontier, rich in opportunities from natural resources to fisheries to more efficient global trade routes. This has propelled a small and hitherto inconspicuous organization, the Arctic Council, based in northern Norway, into the global spotlight and highlighted the economic and strategic issues at stake in the Arctic, writes Martin Breum.
    Published: December 2013 (Vol.8 No.4)
    About the author

    Martin Breum is a TV anchor with the Danish Broadcasting Service and the author of When the Ice Disappears (in Danish only). In 2012, he travelled to the North Pole with the Danish-Greenlandic science expedition, LOMROG III. His website is

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