Any discussion about maritime claims in the Arctic invariably begins with the North Pole. This is only logical: claims made by Denmark and Russia to extend their continental shelves overlap at the pole. A third claim, to be submitted by Canada, is also expected to include it.
Another valid reason for bringing it up is that it was there, in 2007, that a Russian expedition placed the country’s flag on the ocean floor. Doing so was intended as an indication of Moscow’s claim, but it had the effect of setting in motion a process that later led to the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US) to agree to abide by the rule of law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), when it came to settling claims.
The agreement came about in May 2008, when cabinet level representatives of the five countries gathered in Ilulissat, Greenland (pictured above), to discuss how to go about dealing with issues such as climate change, maritime safety and how to address competing claims to the continental shelf.
If the flag-planting was the event the precipitated that meeting, then the meeting’s outcome, known as the Ilulissat Declaration, which set aside any potential conflict over the competing claims, is perhaps, the more pragmatic place to start a discussion about Unclos, particularly in light of a decision yesterday by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international tribunal based in The Hauge, that went against Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
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China, even before the ruling was announced, said it would not abide by it, even though it was to be based on Unclos. Some, including Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, expressed concern in the weeks before the decision that if Unclos failed in the South China Sea it would lead to it unravelling entirely, naming the Arctic specifically as one area of concern.
Time will tell if this prediction holds true. But making any comparison between the two situations is difficult, largely because beyond the national prestige associated with winning a claim and the more tangible benefit of potential natural resource deposits, there is little overlap.
China’s practice of artificially building up islands was the PCA’s main reason for ruling against Beijing, for example. Likewise, neither navigation nor fishing rights are not at stake in the Arctic: all of the territory that is subject to being claimed lies beyond the countries’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones, meaning they can only control access to the ocean floor, not the water (or ice) above it.
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Another area where the two instances differ is that Arctic states already co-operate in the North. So close is the relationship, in fact, that Canada and Denmark staged a joint mapping mission to gather data for their potentially competing claims. Being on speaking terms will make it easier for countries to sit down to negotiate a settlement should the UN decide that their claims are valid.
Lastly is that a major concern of the Arctic Five is safety. The Ilulissat Declaration underscores the need to work together to prevent accidents and, should they occur, to respond to them. Such measures are already in place. Agreements between the Coast Guards of all eight Arctic states will only further the relationship. This, together with the commitment to “mutual trust and transparency” named in the declaration, also helps to defuse conflicts.
It appears that this is something the countries are paying more than just lip service to. When Moscow handed in its revised claim (the first was rejected for lack of data) in February Sergei Donskoi, the natural resources and environment minister, made it clear that the Kremlin had briefed other the other four countries ahead of time. None, he said, objected to its claim.
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This bodes well, but sceptics point out that Moscow’s co-operative attitude is relatively new. What will happen, they ask, if the UN rejects this claim too, or if negotiations fail to produce a satisfactory result?
Another concern is not what Russia is doing, but what it could do. After its land-grab in Crimea, Moscow’s military doings in the North are viewed with increased suspicion, despite reassurances that such activity is defensive in nature, and that it is committed to co-operation.
The wild card in all this is the length of time it will take to come up with a settlement. The period would be measured in decades. Negotiations between Russia and Norway over competing claims in the Barents, for example, took 40 years to wind up. For the Arctic claims, it will take the UN between three and 15 years just to review the claim. After that point, face-to-face negotiations would begin. Some have suggested the entire process could take 50 years. By then even the hottest of heads will have cooled.