Nations Will Not Go to War Over Arctic Resources, Author Says
That’s the view of Charles Emmerson, whose recent book, “The Future History of the Arctic,” discusses the national-security implications of an ice-free polar region. He said yesterday during a presentation at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, that the perception of a scramble for control of the North Pole leading to war is a “lazy, popular idea.”
When it comes to the Arctic, “people tend to lose their analytical faculties and return to a more heroic, more conflict-oriented notion of international relations,” he said, addressing an audience of policy experts and military officials. “There is not likely to be an interstate conflict. This is not World War III.
“Most Arctic states are not capable of controlling the areas in which they have aspirations of ownership,” added Emmerson, who has worked as an associate director and geopolitical specialist at the World Economic Forum. He noted that during the winter months Arctic waterways still are inaccessible.
Global climate change has led to a situation where previously remote parts of the Arctic have become navigable during summer months. This is because warmer temperatures have caused ice sheets to retreat farther and faster than at any time in at least three decades. Scientists believe there are stores of oil, gas and other resources -- possibly copper, cobalt, zinc and gold -- hidden beneath the melting ice.
The oil and gas estimates “are big numbers, but they’re not necessarily huge, game-changing numbers on a global scale,” Emmerson said. “Getting at these resources is costly.”
A recent essay in the Naval War College Review speculated there are 30 billion barrels worth of oil reserves in the U.S. exclusive economic zone in the Arctic, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The United States has not ratified the treaty but generally adheres to it.
Emmerson said there has been a pattern of cooperation among the five Arctic powers: the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark. “That said,” he continued, “there are general areas of dispute,” such as disagreements over certain territorial boundaries.
He also said China, which is expected this year to overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, might want a piece of the pie. China currently has one icebreaking vessel, which it acquired from Ukraine. Chinese officials, though, have announced plans for a second icebreaker, to be produced within the country.
Russia has more than 10 icebreakers, while the United States has three -- with two of them set to retire within the next decade.
The Naval War College’s essay,“Arctic Security Considerations and the U.S. Navy’s Roadmap for the Arctic,” reflects many of Emmerson’s sentiments. The report -- written by Rear Adm. David W. Titley, director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change, and Courtney C. St. John, a policy fellow in the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy -- says the Arctic will become an area used by many countries for different purposes.
“Despite present good relations among Arctic nations, recent media attention paints the area as a source of potential international conflict as countries flex their muscles and seek to identify portions of the region to which they can lay claim,” the report states.
But, it concludes, “the likelihood of large-scale international conflict is small, and the Arctic environment will continue to be harsh and challenging for much of the year.”