Monday, March 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Arctic Powers Don’t Intend to Admit New Members to Their Club

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 25 – Five Arctic powers – the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark (which controls Greenland) – do not intend to admit other countries which do not have territories bordering the northern ocean to membership in the Arctic Council, according to a Russian report.

            (There are three other countries with Arctic territories -- Iceland, Finland, and Sweden -- but they are not mentioned in a report last week by Golos Rossii

            This decision, announced in Oslo by Norwegian and Russian officials, represents a stinging rebuff to China and several other maritime powers which had hoped to be part of Arctic Council talks on exploitation of mineral resources in the seabed and on the use of the Northern Sea Route 

            At the same time, it represents a major victory both for the Russian Federation which has advanced sizeable claims on the Arctic seabed and which thus retains unchallenged, at least in this organizational framework, with regard to the operation of the Northern Sea Route which passes north of its territory.

            As Golos Rossii noted in its report about this development, “the Arctic neighbors of Russia” have been upset by Moscow’s claims for “a certain part of the shelf beyond the borders of the 200-mile economic exclusion zone such as the Lomonosov and Mendelev ridges, “but each of the five polar states has its own views on this or that sector of the shelf.”

            Sea borders and the use of the shelf are in fact defined not by the Arctic Council but by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea and by bilateral and multilateral agreements among the countries involved. The Arctic Five have long dominated such accord, but as the Russian news service reported, “China, South Korea and Japan” want in.

            They have been seeking permanent membership in the Arctic Council, and together with India, they have called for declaring the Arctic to be a borderless zone in which no country would enjoy special privileges. Russia has opposed this, and it has now been supported by the other four current permanent members.

            What now remains to be seen is whether the Arctic Council will be able to maintain its control over the Arctic as climate change makes navigation and mineral exploitation more profitable or whether, having decided to keep China and the others out, the members of the Council will find that those excluded will seek other venues to advance their interests.

            If the latter happens – and that now seems more likely than it did only a few week ago – then the politics of the Arctic are likely to heat up far more quickly than the Arctic itself, a development that makes the future of Greenland and the possession of an ice breaker capability by others more critical as well.

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