Cooperation not conflict in the Arctic

Map: Overlapping Sovreignty Claims in the Arctic

By Christian Le Mière, Research Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

Contrary to the narrative of recent press reports suggesting that the melting Arctic could mean the end of the geopolitical order as we know it, the clear message to emerge during the various events thus far held under the rubric of the IISS’ Forum for Arctic Climate Change and Security is that cooperation rather than conflict may come to define the developing situation in the High North.

As sea ice retreats in the Arctic, analysis of the region’s military balance has become more frequent. While an important issue, as demonstrated by the Military Balance 2012 (click on map for a larger view), this is not necessarily owing to the probability that the littoral countries are going to descend into some kind of regional conflict. Rather, a growing military and paramilitary presence in the Arctic may be beneficial for regional stability rather than detrimental.

This is because the various littoral countries already share strategic goals in the High North: to expand trade, protect the environment, extract resources and police new sea areas. Given the vast tracts of ocean and the difficult operating conditions, military and paramilitary cooperation may be key to ensuring safe and secure commercial activity in the Arctic. It is no coincidence that the first international accord signed under the auspices of the Arctic Council was a search-and-rescue agreement.

With this in mind, the IISS hopes to foster broader dialogue among the Arctic and near-Arctic states to discuss ways in which military and paramilitary organisations can coordinate and collaborate. Although the region involves traditional rivals such as Russia and a number of NATO states, while rising powers such as China are increasingly interested in the Arctic shipping routes, there is scope for closer relationships in the Arctic.


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