Five of the eight Arctic Council states are NATO members. So far, 2012 has also been a year where Swedes and Fins have moved closer toward full membership of alliance. If Sweden and Finland were to join, which seems plausible, NATO members would occupy 7 out of the total 8 seats in the Arctic Council.
In advance of this becoming reality the blogosphere has, over the last couple of months, been littered with conspiracy theories on secret plans for “Arctic war” between the NATO and the only non-NATO member in the Arctic Council, Russia.
In 2013 the Canadian government will hold the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. In preparation for this the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program last week released a set of recommendations of what should guide the Canadians’ two year tenure. Expectations are that the chairmanship will prove an assertive Canada acting on their belief that they promote the interests of the Arctic by advancing Canadian leadership.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was on her way to Tromsø (Norway) and Stockholm (Sweden) to reaffirm that the US has an interest in the Arctic, rebuffing criticisms that this rarely shows. With her trip to Scandinavia some experts conjured that this was the first baby-step to finally signing the UNCLOS. This would be a landmark as it (at least officially) enables the country to press its claims on the Arctic. Even if this was the case, the US will still need to work hard to keep up with their Arctic partners.
Chinese vessel ‘Snow Dragon’ in action (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
When we think of Chinese foreign policy most of us picture foreign direct investment in Africa and assertiveness in the Near Seas (Yellow, East China and South China). Few of us think ice breakers. China’s application to join the Arctic Council as permanent observer however suggests the Chinese are now looking north.
Estimates have it that half of China’s gross domestic product is dependent on export. If the Arctic would become navigable during summer months, as a result of climate change, and shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by taking the Northern Sea Route instead of 6400 kilo-metres longer route via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal, then it seems justifiable, even for a non-Arctic state, to have some interest in High North policy.
It has been an exciting New Year for High North policy in the Scandinavian countries. In the annual Foreign Policy Declaration last Tuesday, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt reiterated the government’s intent to push its new Arctic Strategyas one of its core foreign policies. To the west, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Garh Störe announced Oslo’s new project of drilling for petroleum (together with Russia) in the northern parts of the Barents Sea. In the south, Denmark’s Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal appointed the country’s first Arctic Ambassador, Klavs A. Holm, previously an emissary to London, Singapore and the EU.
The Arctic is the new buzz word in Scandinavian corridors of power. All three states have now drawn up comprehensive strategies articulating their vision for the region. But are their visions compatible? While Scandinavian states are often considered politically indistinguishable (and have pledged themselves, as signatories of the “Nordic Declaration of Solidarity,” to govern in respect of their common heritage) their geographical differences could bring them into competition over the Arctic.
The oil fever has struck the Arctic sooner than expected. Several of the world’s biggest oil companies are vying for access to Greenland after a gas discovery last month raised expectations for offshore exploration around the inhospitable nation.
Greenland, the planet’s largest island with a population of just over 56,000, had been searching for the black gold for decades. In the past, however, Greenlanders have been destined to make a living from fishing and $600 million in annual subsidies from the Danish motherland (making up 55 precent of the island’s budget – or 0.75 percent of Denmark’s.) So, quite understandably, a majority of Greenlanders are now looking favorably upon the latest developments and are supporting oil exploration as a way to create jobs and wealth in a country troubled by high unemployment and social problems such as alcoholism and the world’s highest suicide rate.
Besides, the islanders are hopeful the oil might yield sufficient revenue to finally throw off the yoke of external rule and maybe even turn their icy island into an Arctic Kuwait.
These developments come soon after Greenland’s latest step towards independence. Already in 1979, Denmark granted home rule to Greenland, and in November 2008, voters in Greenland overwhelmingly approved a plan for expanding the island’s autonomy. The plan (which Denmark supported) allowed the small, mostly Inuit population to take control over the local police force, courts and coast guard and to make Greenlandic, an Inuit tongue, the official language.
It also set new rules on how to split future oil revenues between Greenland and Denmark, giving Greenland the first $13 million of annual revenues, while anything beyond that would be split equally between Greenland and Denmark. The new status quo then took effect on 21 June 2009, leaving the Danish royal government in charge only of foreign affairs, security and financial policy, while still providing the $600 million annual subsidy (or approx. $11,300 per Greenlander.)