The Arctic ‘race for cooperation’

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt speaks on Arctic security

By Sarah Johnstone, Assistant editor, online

Russia’s planting of a flag under the North Pole in 2007 was a ‘magnificent’ bit of PR, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said at the IISS this week, but it wasn’t typical of international relations in the Arctic.

At the launch of the institute’s Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security, Bildt highlighted the need for nations and companies to work together in the polar region. Rapid climate change – twice as fast in the Arctic than elsewhere – was opening up new maritime routes and opportunities for resources exploration. However, he insisted, it remained a harsh environment that made cooperation necessary.

This relatively benign assessment surprised some of his London audience, one of whom said the issue of Arctic security normally in the UK focused warily on what the Russians were doing. Bildt admitted that Vladimir Putin’s election manifesto was ‘not entirely in tune with what I’m saying’. However, he stuck by his earlier assertion that the Arctic region had become much less militarised since the end of the Cold War.

Of course, the United States continued to maintain the Thule Air Base in Greenland, some air-defence early warning radar stations were still found across the region and the Arctic remained an important site for satellite-control systems.

But the maritime Arctic was governed by an international regime – the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – and the Arctic Council had increased the emphasis on peaceful collaboration since it was founded in 1996. The Russians were enthusiastic council participants, Bildt said, and other countries were jockeying to become observers to the process.

The increasing retreat of Arctic ice in summer has worried climate scientists, but it could also open hitherto impassable sea channels. The Northwest Passage, through the Canadian Arctic and the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia, became temporarily ice-free for the first time in 2007. The Northern Sea Route skirting Russia’s northern coast and down the Japanese coastline into the Pacific Ocean would cut one-third of the distance to travel between Europe and Asia.

However, ‘it ain’t that easy’, Bildt warned. Huge computer-navigated container ships would not be able to traverse Arctic waters. International negotiations were needed to resolve safety, traffic and insurance issues. ‘The first legally binding agreement, on search and rescue, was signed last year.’

Bildt was relatively optimistic that resources competition would not lead to conflict, because of:

  • the primacy of UNCLOS;
  • the concentration of Arctic oil and gas in continental-shelf areas where there were no jurisdictional disputes;
  • and the fact that oil and gas were often transported out of the region by ship, reducing the likelihood of pipeline disputes.

‘I find it difficult to see that there would be any development that would take us back to the situation of the past,’ Bildt said, pointing out that since the resolution of a Russian/Norwegian boundary dispute the biggest jurisdictional conflict was between Canada and the US.

Environmental pollution was a bigger concern, and he hoped to see an oil-spill prevention agreement concluded in 2013 before the end of Sweden’s Arctic Council presidency.

During his talk, Bildt reeled off a host of figures to highlight the Arctic’s strategic importance. Among these were that a mine at Kiruna in northern Sweden supplied 90% of Europe’s iron-ore, and Russia – which had 25% of global gas supplies – got 95% of its gas from the Arctic.

Watch the full discussion

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