Why is the Arctic at the Center of World Politics?

News coverage of the Arctic has been steadily growing in tandem with the rising importance of the region in recent years. The focus of international politics often tends to revolve around energy security within the context of a global scramble for resources to keep individual countries’ economic growth engines humming. In view of the possibilities of the Arctic as a future abundant natural resources supply base for various pivotal countries, especially in Asia, non-Arctic states such as South Korea, Japan, and China join actual Arctic nations in taking a more active part in contemplating Arctic development and theregion’s future. The Arctic Council accepted India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy as observers to the Council in May 2013 even though they all lack territory north of the Arctic Circle.This actually constitutes a welcome development because some circumpolar issues – specifically originating from human activities south of the Arctic Circle – are, indeed, transnational in nature such as climate change and marine shipping. The changing climate in the High North can expose countries further south to hostile climatic trends impacting weather and eventually their food security.

Three Definitions of the Arctic

Last week, during a highly informative event hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Passing the Arctic Council Torch” – bringing together leading Arctic experts from government and academia – US Admiral Robert Papp Jr. dwelled on the main US priority in the Arctic, stating: “It is imperative to address the effects of climate change before it is too late.” He went on to describe the US government’s stance on the Arctic as “more active and more forward-leaning” elaborating that the “warming of the Arctic” represents a conditio-sine-qua-non for oil and gas exploration and maritime trade throughout the High North. In this respect, Admiral Papp stressed the importance of safety standards for oil and gas drilling in a “region of shared responsibility”. He did not tie himself down to whether this required a legally binding commitment in the form of a multilateral agreement or whether a voluntary adoption of certain standards sufficed.

Interestingly, Admiral Papp mentioned “regional seas agreements” as a possible model for the Arctic. This is a clear indication that the US government has no intention to soften its long held position with regard to the concept of transit passage through international straits by subsurface, surface and air. This position is meant to counter any efforts of coastal nations to restrict freedom of the seas globally. Note, changing the US stance in the Arctic as it relates to the Northwest Passage – Canada regards the straits as internal waters subject to the full force of Canadian domestic law – could serve as a dangerous precedent for international straits such as the Strait of Malacca or Hormuz – both crucial for US national security.

Moreover, the term used by Admiral Papp – regional seas agreement – basically advocates for a ‘regionally tailored’ approach vis-à-vis a global convention increases the chances of meaningful regional cooperation on environmental matters such as marine oil pollution prevention, search and rescue procedures, and general emergency response. “[E]very regional sea has its own environmental problems and its own needs, and a regional convention is more likely to attract the full interest and commitment of the governments who sign it,”the UNEP explains. Within such a framework, working together on a multitude of issues could further enhance cooperation through the sharing of information and data as well as best practices. Moreover, this could also serve as an effective accountability mechanism if states are required to disclose and/or document any incidents to fellow Arctic stakeholders.

Just recently, Leona Aglukkaq – Canada’s Minister for the Arctic Council and current Arctic Council Chair – announced the next Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting to take place in Iqaluit, Nunavut (Canada) on 24-25 April 2015. Every two years this meeting is intended to bring together both ministers of the Arctic states and representatives of Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations to set the Arctic Council’s objectives for the coming two years under a new chairmanship. The US will be the Chair of the Arctic Council from May 2015 through May 2017.

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During the CSIS event, various Arctic experts on three interesting panels echoed many of Admiral Papp’s remarks in their own. Meanwhile, renowned Canadian Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia delivered perhaps the punch line of the entire event by stating:

The Arctic is at the center of world politics (…) given the incredible pace of climate change in the Arctic and also given geopolitical developments involving Russia – [specifically because] of those two features, [the Arctic] being on the front line of the greatest challenge humankind may face in this century and given the all-important relationship between Russia and NATO. [This relationship will continue to] be front and center of international diplomacy.”

Full article: Why is the Arctic at the Center of World Politics?  (Breaking Energy)

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