The Other Resource Wars

Roger Howard | Exclusively written for | September 2010

Issues:Climate change, Competition over resources

At mysterious pace, and for reasons that remain hotly disputed, the ice of the Arctic Ocean appears to be steadily retreating. The latest estimates by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre at the University of Colorado, which use remote sensing data from Nasa satellites to make their findings, suggest that this year’s ice levels are well below their long-term average: in mid-August ice covered 2.30 million square miles in the Ocean, which is nearly 650,000 square miles less than the average 1979-2000 figure, even if it marginally exceeded the record-breaking lows of 2007 and 2008(1).


Exactly when the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free for much of the year is impossible to judge, and estimates have varied widely: some experts argue that by the year 2020 trans-Arctic shipping could well be commonplace in the months of late summer, when ice reaches its annual minimum, while others think that, if present trends continue, such an eventuality is only likely to come about decades later. But what is certain is that the region is becoming much more accessible than ever before: there is now more human interaction in places, on both land and sea, that were once considered wholly remote and hostile.


This heightening level of activity poses a very different threat to international stability than is commonly supposed. In recent years there has been speculation about growing rivalry for control over the Arctic’s natural resources, notably the large deposits of oil and natural gas that independent bodies, such as the US Geological Survey, think are located there. But there is no convincing reason why any country would want to risk open conflict over these reserves, even if they exist in such voluminous quantities: for example, there are other parts of the world where oil and natural gas can be recovered with a far greater ease, and at a far lower cost, than the Arctic region is likely to offer for decades to come. By the time the region does become more accessible, alternative fuel sources are likely to have been pioneered in any case.


The presence of valuable natural resources in the Arctic region, or even the mere possibility of finding them, instead poses a subtly different challenge to international peace than usually supposed. For instead of fighting over resources, governments could instead feel threatened by the heightened foreign presence that the search, or exploitation, of these resources will bring to places that are important for other, quite independent, reasons. This is potentially a recipe for international mistrust that could conceivably spill over.


One such example is Greenland. In the eyes of American military planners, this huge, frozen land mass occupies a vital strategic location whose fate cannot be ignored. This is because it would potentially make a natural vantage point for any hostile power seeking to exercise control over the trans-Atlantic sea lanes upon which the American economy heavily depends. So during the Second World War, for example, Washington was deeply concerned by Nazi efforts to establish bases along Greenland’s warmer southern coasts and deployed the US Navy to track and eliminate any putative threat. In April 1941, the exiled Danish government then signed a treaty with the Americans allowing Washington “almost unlimited rights to establish bases and military installations in Greenland”, leading to the establishment of thirteen army and four navy bases, one of which, at Thule, remains in active use today.


Nearly seven decades on, Greenland is regarded as a very important source of highly valued natural resources, including oil, natural gas and the rare earth metals that are used in mobile phones, hybrid cars and missile guidance systems. In the years ahead, the island is certain to attract large-scale investment by foreign companies and, in the case of state-owned enterprises, their governmental sponsors.


In some, perhaps many cases, this will lead to a series of company mergers and acquisitions that do not bring any foreign boots onto local soil, just as Chinese companies have in recent years sought to acquire stakes in companies like Unocal and Rio Tinto. But equally foreign nationals can sometimes undertake the search for, and exploitation of, some natural resources: the oilfields at Cabinda in Angola, for example, are home to thousands of expatriate Chinese workers. So it is possible to imagine mistrust, tension and destabilisation between Washington and Beijing if, for example, the Chinese should in the years ahead establish a strong presence in Greenland.


This is a danger presented not just by the exploitation of natural resources but by the growing human interaction in parts of the world that, until recently, were too climatically hostile to be accessible. So as the waters of the Arctic Ocean steadily become more navigable, Russia and the United States may start to feel threatened by the growing presence of commercial and, more obviously, military vessels as they exercise their right, under international law, to make “innocent passage” through the territorial seas that lie adjacent to every coastal state.


This is partly because they would be both unaccustomed to such military movements and, in all likelihood, relatively unprepared for them, even if, over the past two years, both countries have released internal documents that emphasise the need for greater defence spending on the Arctic region.(2) But their alarm would also reflect, more importantly, the strategic importance of the area: for example, Russia’s northern coasts are home to several key ports and industrial complexes, and also provide a potentially major shipping route that would link east and west


So the presence of natural resources within existing borders, in places like Siberia and Alaska, will heighten the strategic fears of each respective country: both Russia and the United States will fear an attack on their resources as the region becomes more accessible and an increasing number of foreign ships make their way, quite legitimately, into surrounding waters. But these areas would have strategic value- as shipping routes, for example- even if they were devoid of resources.


In other words, instead of being a prize over which competing nations will be tempted to fight, natural resources in the Arctic region will have a destabilising influence only in an indirect sense.


Such mistrust and suspicion can only be alleviated by more international dialogue. For example, NATO ships could avoid straying into Russian territorial waters without giving Moscow prior notice, even though international law puts them under no such obligation, and large areas of the Arctic region could realistically be demilitarised.


End notes:

1 - ‘North by Northwest’, report by the National Snow and IceDataCenter, University of Colorado 17 August 2010

2 - NSPD 66, January 2009; ‘Russian National Security Strategy Until 2020’, 20 February 2009


Image Source: psd


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