The future of Arctic cooperation in a changing strategic environment

Secretary Tillerson Addresses the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 11, 2017

U.S. Air Force/public domain

Although the Arctic is one of most conflict-free regions in the world, questions have emerged about how resilient it would be to major changes. RAND and RAND Europe researchers examined factors that could potentially upset Arctic cooperation in the coming decade.

A table-top exercise found that, while there is potential for tensions to rise if nations in the Arctic region make claims on disputed resources, they are more likely to respect established international norms than attempt to circumvent them.

Background

In recent years, the Arctic has been increasingly described as a region of intensifying geostrategic competition. As the region’s ice cover gets thinner and smaller in area due to rising temperatures, there could be a number of implications:

  • Some resource-rich areas previously inaccessible may become increasingly attractive;
  • Maritime sea routes could be more heavily used by both commercial and military traffic; and
  • Coastal communities in the far north may experience new opportunities, as well as elevated risks from a variety of hazards.

By most accounts cooperation in the Arctic region remains strong. Institutions such as the Arctic Council support agreements between nations and other stakeholders on areas of common concern, such as search and rescue and oil-spill responses. Meanwhile, nations with an interest in the region have generally agreed that coordinated action furthers the interests of all.

However, despite Arctic being one of most conflict-free regions in the world, questions have emerged about how resilient it would be to major changes, some of which the region is already experiencing, and whether the current patterns of cooperation between nations would continue.

Goals

RAND Europe worked with RAND Corporation to examine factors that could potentially upset cooperation in the Arctic region during the next decade. These focused on three potentially contentious areas:

  • Overlapping claims of Arctic nations regarding the extension of their continental shelves;
  • Increased maritime activity; and
  • Maritime incidents that could quickly escalate.

Methodology

RAND Europe organised a table top exercise (TTX) on international cooperation in the Arctic region hosted by the Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt (Norwegian Institute of International Affairs – NUPI) in Oslo, Norway on 6 and 7 June 2017. Participants from seven countries with territory in the Arctic (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US) and the UK were invited to discuss a series of focal events that could alter the regional security environment in the 2020 decade.

Findings

  • The exercise confirmed that cooperation between nations in the Artic region is likely to remain in place, with this benefiting all. Not only is conflict incredibly difficult to wage in the Arctic environment, but the potential impact on local communities, economy, environment and other factors would be extremely negative for all nations with an interest and territory in the region.
  • Upcoming recommendations from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) regarding extended continental shelf claims may become a source of tensions between states receiving a positive notification and those told that they need to submit more scientific evidence to substantiate their claims.
  • While there is potential for tensions to rise if nations in the Arctic region make claims on disputed resources, they are more likely to respect established international norms than attempt to circumvent them.
  • Participants were divided on the potential benefits from nations asserting claims in the Arctic region. Some believed that this presents limited economic benefits, at least in the short term. Others emphasised the political and symbolic value of rights to the Arctic seabed, which could theoretically lead to gains in domestic popularity for national governments.
  • The development of economically viable and strategically important maritime shipping routes along the northern coasts of Russia (Northern Sea Route) and Canada (Northwest Passage) could trigger economic benefits for all Arctic nations and other stakeholders. However, it may trigger competition between those countries looking to could serve as new economic hubs in the region.
  • More open water for longer periods in the Arctic may encourage elevated activity by a diverse range of national, commercial, environmental, private and other stakeholders. The increased ship traffic is likely to increase the probability of accidents and the risk of oil spills, which could escalate tensions. However, responses to maritime incidents would most likely focus on safety and diplomacy, rather than escalating into conflicts.
  • Participants underlined the importance of the legal frameworks, such as UNCLOS, and institutions, such as the Arctic Council, that provide some degree of governance to the region. These frameworks and institutions provide some means for Arctic nations to continue establishing procedures and capabilities for handling emerging security and safety incidents.