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Arctic Informal Operational Regime

(by Willy Østreng)


In this article, the question being addressed is the following: Will big power interests in the Arctic agree to an informal operational regime for future utilization of regional resources? The question can be answered in the affirmative and the content of the regime can be summarized in nine points:

1.     All powers underscore their need for the hydrocarbon resources of the region. USA and EU define their needs in terms of economic and energy security, whereas Russia needs them for socio-economic development of the country. Japan, China, India and South-Korea seem to follow suit.

·       Future Prediction: More and more parts of the Arctic will be opened up for oil and gas prospecting and production.

2.     All Arctic States and EU agree that the resource exploitation should be conducted with due respect to the fragile and vulnerable Arctic environment. The wordings are somewhat different between the policy documents but they all relate to the concept of sustainable development. The EU and the United States opt for eco-system management and the application of best practices, whereas Russia uses the concept of environmental security. Asian States have not yet publicly expressed their policy on the Arctic environment, but it is reasonable to assume that they will comply with the principles of the environmental regime to get access to regional resources.

·       Future Prediction: Environmental concerns will have a big say in oil and gas developments. Certain areas may even be closed to petroleum prospecting to meet environmental goals.

3.     Arctic States and EU are in favour of international cooperation to resolve multiple challenges connected in particular to resource exploitation and shipping. Russia is more inclined to focus her interest and attention on questions related to the working of her Arctic Zone, whereas the United States and the EU are somewhat more pan-Arctic in orientation. The EU seems the most cooperative, opting for a ‘cooperative governance system.’ Asian countries have no option but to comply with the regime established by the Arctic States.

·       Future Prediction: All States are in need of peaceful relationships to fulfil their material needs from the High North. To achieve this they are likely to make every effort to sort their differences out by peaceful means and mitigation. If need be, they are likely to agree to disagree when resolution cannot be reached. Failure to do this is failure to secure their own individual needs to achieve a higher degree of economic and energy security.

4.     All Arctic States and EU are in favour of peaceful resolution of conflicts and disputes. This policy goal is a prerequisite for undisturbed and uninterrupted deliveries of petroleum to Asian countries.

·       Future Prediction: see last item.

5.     All Arctic States and EU seem to agree that the Arctic Council is a useful forum, but disagree when it comes to its mandate. The United States does not favour to extend its present mandate, whereas Russia would like to strengthen it, and the EU would like to become a permanent observer in the short term perspective to influence its working and decisions. China is an applicant for becoming a permanent observer and the likelihood is that the other countries, like Italy, as a first step would like to achieve the same status with an ultimate goal of becoming a full member. This was the direction they followed to become Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, and this is most likely their strategy to acquire a seat in the Arctic Council in the future.

·       Future Prediction: The Arctic Council will be moderately modernized, but will stay within its present mandate - as a forum – at least in the medium term.

6.     All Arctic States and EU are in favour of shipping in Arctic waters. The U.S. seems more occupied with destination Arctic shipping in relation to resource transportation, whereas the EU also focuses on transit sailings. The likelihood is that destination Arctic shipping is the most attractive in a short and medium term perspective. 

·       Future Prediction: Shipping activities will increase in all parts of the Arctic Ocean – more so along the NSR than through the NWP and TPP. Shipping is likely to become the most used mode of resource transportation in the Arctic.

7.     All parties are in favour of applying international ocean law to regulate regional ocean territories and affairs. The United States underscore the freedom of the High Seas and accept no special Treaty for the region, whereas the EU does base its policy on UNCLOS III, but are more inclined to accept deviations and additions of legal instruments to meet the specificities of the Arctic Ocean. Russia on her part accept to bow to the Ocean Conventions to which she is a party, but underscores that domestic legislation is yet another instrument of regional regulation. Presently, the United States invokes customary international law as a basis of regional regulations. This put her in a position to pick and choose what regulatory articles to apply in different outstanding questions, leaving her with the flexibility to adopt to the varying needs of national interests.

·       Future Prediction: Ocean Law Conventions - in particular UNCLOS III - will be the main instruments of regulation. A comprehensive Arctic Treaty is not a realistic option, but special amendments to accepted international law to accommodate regional needs may occur, for instance to preserve a unique and fragile environment, and biodiversity.

8.     All Arctic States and EU are in favour of treating indigenous people and cultures with due respect and to have them reap some of the economic benefit of the new era. Here, Asian countries have not expressed publicly any policy.

·       Future Prediction: The voice of indigenous people in industrial development processes will be part of national and international decision-making. The time has long passed when governments and industries could plan at the expense of local communities.

9.     All Arctic States and EU seem to apply an extended security concept in the region, accepting that military and civil needs are taken care of in parallel in different parts of the Arctic Ocean. Here politics and natural features play in concert. It follows from this that Asian countries may be in favour of the civil component of extended security, without expressing any viewpoints on the matter.

·       Future Prediction: Military as well as economic activities in the region will increase in the years ahead - gradually. Conflicts between the sectors may occur (for instance in the Barents Sea and TPP), but “platonic cohabitation” seem to be the scenario that the parties are likely to plan with.

This informal operational regime implies that Arctic resources will be harvested, not least hydrocarbons, and transported on keel to southern markets. This is so because the informal operational regime relates to all the important geopolitical features mentioned above and is reflected in big power politics inside and outside of the Arctic Council.

A new page in Arctic history is most likely being turned with the aim of satisfying material needs and compensate for political problems in southern latitudes. This is not to say that there are no potential or real conflicts that can turn developments around.

Let us see which elements in big power politics can reduce the likelihood of an overall agreement on this operational regime. Both the EU and the United States insist on the freedom of navigation and that the NWP and NEP are international straits allowing for transit passage, whereas Russia and Canada insist these passages are internal waters and open to international navigation only with the consent of the coastal states. The White House regard the freedom of navigation as a national security interest because it secures the freedom of navigation through strategically important straits in southern latitudes. This stand reflects global superpower interest, and is hard to compromise.

Thus, the most potent and explicit conflict potential of the region is related to shipping and navigation. If Russia officially claims sovereignty over the “NSR-routes” in the Central Arctic Basin, the conflict most likely will escalate. What is more: If need be, and if peaceful resolution is not possible, the United States is ready to resolve conflicts alone on a unilateral basis.


    Willy Østreng, 2010, Arctic Informal Operational Regime, CHNL.©

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