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Ice-Breaking Diplomacy: Countries In The Arctic Circle Show How To Handle Territorial Disputes

04/02/2016 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle Tuesday Aug, 16, 2005. Scientists say that global warming has an increasing effect on the Arctic region with glaciers shrinking, temperatures of the arctic waters warming, and permafrost softening. (AP Photo/John McConnico)

"It is a Middle East-like situation in very superficial terms -- just that no one is killing each other over it," a former oil executive said on the sidelines of the Arctic Frontiers conclave in Tromsø, Norway, a town of 72,000 inhabitants 350km inside the Arctic Circle.

The northern frontiers of the Arctic are not just barren lands of ice, snow and polar bears. The 'High North' houses everything from highly militarised zones and cross-country interests in minerals and natural resources, apart from being the global ground zero of the climate change debate.

To put it in perspective, the Arctic is home to the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet headquartered in Severomorsk. It is seen as the "main" fleet of the Russian naval armory. This Russian presence in the Arctic since the 1930s has also directed the defense policies of other states such as Norway, Canada and US who have had to offer deterrence and keep an eye on Russian military activities.

The success of the Arctic Council means that the "dangerous road of conflict has been avoided."

In a region with plenty of potential for conflict, the Arctic Council is a cohesive inter-governmental platform to take decisions on issues pertaining to the region. It is a forum where all states that have direct interests in the Arctic debate and discuss every aspect of the region, whether concerning indigenous communities or geographical and boundary-related disputes.

This January, in Tromsø, a small yet important town often known as the gateway to the Arctic, a gathering of global leaders, thinkers and interest groups assembled at the Arctic Frontiers conference to discuss a host of pertinent topics and to observe 20 years of the Arctic Council. India, now one of the world's biggest economies and home to more than 1.3 billion people is also an observing member of this far-away multilateral process.

India's presence as an observer in the Arctic Council puzzles regional leaders as well as the body's permanent members themselves.

Today, it is international law that is coming out as the big winner in the Arctic "disputes" over continental shelf extensions between states like Canada and Russia, with the US also being a major influence via its Arctic coastline in Alaska. Despite its reputation for swagger, even Moscow has been constant in respect of international laws when it has come to issues in the Arctic Circle.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende in Tromsø told all parties that the Arctic "should remain safe, peaceful and a region for international cooperation under international law."

Brende's highlighting of the word "peaceful" perhaps comes from the hype-driven international media coverage predicting military conflict in the Arctic as the ice thaws, natural resources become easier to access, the seas become navigable and Russia's political distance from the West increases. This along with the fact that other Arctic states such as Norway, Canada and Denmark (whose ambit includes political access via Greenland) are permanent members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have led some of the coverage take a more dramatised turn, with a lot of arguments based on the 'what if...' factor.

However, reality is quite different even though conflict in any political theatre is a 'never say never' situation. Brende highlighted that the success of the Arctic Council means that the "dangerous road of conflict has been avoided." He added that the Arctic Council, its structure, workings and outcomes can inspire actors in other regions to seek greater cooperation even with those with whom they may not get along. "We do disagree, but have not seen disagreements in the Arctic jeopardises the structures (of the Arctic Council)."

The Arctic Council, its structure, workings and outcomes can inspire actors in other regions to seek greater cooperation even with those with whom they may not get along.

India's presence as an observer in the Arctic Council puzzles regional leaders as well as the body's permanent members themselves. "What are the interests of India here?" was the most common question that was asked, usually followed with a bemused look.

India's interests in the Arctic are not particularly directed at any agenda, and the nation is part of the Arctic Council today purely on the merit of it being one of the world's fastest growing economies and populations (and polluters). It also contributes actively in science and research, using its research station 'Himadri'. In addition, India has invested in oil and gas projects in the Russian sub-Arctic regions, and has demonstrated an interest in becoming an offshore drilling partner of both Russian and Western companies. These plans have been held up now due to sanctions on Russia and low oil prices, making new Arctic oil projects unviable.

It is a rare regional parliament open to international participation, and an inclusive approach to regional diplomacy rather than an exclusive one.

Even if the 'Arctic energy race' may be dismissed as largely hyperbole today, the grandstanding on the region's mineral wealth does not stop in theory. Professor Nikita Lomagin of the European University in St Petersburg said that the Arctic is the "future of Russian energy", and that it should be Moscow's primary focus. Lomagin's five main dimensions of the Arctic from a Russian perspective presented military and energy as the top two most important segments, with environment coming in at number four.

In reality, there is no race or a build up towards military conflict, despite the fact that the region is still under largely vague terms claimed by various parties pending official UN outcomes under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Fortunately, the Arctic Council has managed to provide a forum, despite having no legal policymaking powers, to discuss most regional matters without falling into the usual traps of realpolitik. It is a rare regional parliament open to international participation, and an inclusive approach to regional diplomacy rather than an exclusive one.

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