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The Tip of the Arctic Geopolitical Iceberg

 5 min read / 

The melting of polar ice caps is synonymous with climate change and rising sea levels, but with glacial recession steadily continuing, this process is becoming increasingly associated with security tensions and economic benefit. Although the Arctic has long been regarded as an international territory, the promise of vast untapped natural wealth and shortened trade routes between Asia and the West has, in recent years, pushed the Arctic onto to “centre stage” for policy makers and commercial giants seeking to dominate the region.

This article aims to explore the complexities of the less-examined situation unfolding in the Arctic by focusing upon regional geopolitics and analysing international manoeuvre in both non-governmental and state spheres.

Why has there been an increased interest in the region?

Fossil resources

The U.S. Geological Survey in 2008 released a report estimating that the Arctic holds approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas resources, 84% of which is located offshore. The net worth of these reserves on current markets would balance at around $17trn, a sum, greater than that of the entire Chinese and Japanese economies combined.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that the Arctic has drawn the attention of global powers beyond those within the Arctic Circle, the likes of which include: China, India, and the EU. With global energy rhetoric geared towards a fossil-free future, the prospect of Arctic oil may make little sense to the wider international community which is moving towards a green energy future.

Shipping Lanes

The appeal of the opening Arctic, however, is not restricted exclusively to its resources. The melting of previously impassable ice-blocked shipping routes provides an opportunity for shorter and faster intercontinental trade.

The Northern Passage route cuts the shipping distance used by mainline shipping routes from Rotterdam to Yokohama from 20,600km to 8,500km, and from Rotterdam to Vancouver from 16,400km to 12,850km. These shipping lanes have not only allowed easier access to regional resources but also promise to open lucrative physical trade routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Though attractive in prospects, it is important to note that both opportunities are long term.

Arctic offshore mining presents a number of challenges which include unique infrastructure and safety requirements for operating in the harsh environment.  Furthermore, the lack of established deep water ports along the Russian-dominated Northern Passage, combined with the lack of search and rescue capabilities in the region, creates difficulty and risk in making voyages. These are just some the infrastructural deficiencies which need to be addressed before establishing a conventional Arctic oil and gas market supply or a mainline intercontinental shipping route.

Arctic Regional Claims: Legal framework

Although the Arctic has no firm dominating presence, 5 principal nations (Russia, Norway, the United States, Canada and Denmark-through judicial control of Greenland) hold the right to claim territory in the Arctic Ocean pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is because only these nations have a shoreline within the Arctic Circle. Under UNCLOS, the territorial seas of a nation extend 12 nautical miles (“nm”) from shore.

The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a nation extends from the country’s baseline up to 200nm and gives them exclusive economic control over resources which fall under this jurisdiction. A nation with sea frontage can then extend their economic zone beyond 200nm if it can prove that the underwater ridges of the seafloor are a geological extension of the country’s own continental shelf.

Overlapping claims

Although the Arctic has been hailed as an example for international cooperation, overlapping claims for these rich waters have added to growing geopolitical competition in the region. As part of Russia’s Foreign Ministry plans to extend their territorial grasp, led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russian explorers panted their flag on the seabed 4200m below the North Pole. This sparked international outcry as Canadian Foreign Minister, Peter MacKay exclaimed that “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory'”.

Contrary to the subsequently portrayed ‘Race for the Arctic’ media frenzy, differing and overlapping claims for the Arctic Seas have remained in accordance with international legal framework. After rejecting bilateral talks with Russia regarding overlapping claims, Denmark cited the need to “apply international rules” and continues to pursue their claim for ownership of the North Pole under UNCLOS guidelines. While Russia’s signalled flag-planting may have proved provocative, it is more an indication of their geopolitical intentions in the region, rather than an aggressively enforced stake of claim.


The Arctic appears to have grasped both political and commercial policy-makers attention with the prospect of gross untapped revenue potential. The long-term reality of this prospect has caused geopolitical competition for dominance, but has not yet induced any major international legal breaches. As the polar-ice continues to recede, so the political powers of the world continue to vie for stakes in the region. This presents a number of challenges and questions about the future of the Arctic.

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