Climate change and militarization
5 minutes

With the ice-cap melting, a competition between the northern countries has started over the Arctic zone. At stake is its potential mineral wealth that is nearing its point of exploitation thanks to the warming up of the earth. Diplomatic rivalry is underpinned by military developments.

January 2011 British prime minister David Cameron took the initiative for a first Nordic Baltic Summit in order to strengthen an alliance of common interests. In 2009 an agreement over military cooperation NORDEFCO (Nordic Defense Cooperation) was concluded between Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. The London Summit gathered next to these NORDEFCO countries, the Baltic States and of course the United Kingdom. Cameron's main aim was to tighten the link with NATO.

 August 2009 Norway decided to move its Operational Command Headquarters from Stavanger in South Norway to Reitan near the town of Bodø high up in the north. The Swedish minister of defense is planning to maintain the air force's 100 fighter planes on the one hand, and to increase its submarines fleet on the other hand in order 'to help provide for security in the high north'. Sweden, a neutral country, hosts the headquarters of the EU Nordic Battle Group which includes non-EU Norway. This Battle Group has been completely operational since 2007 and can count, as the other Battle Groups do, on NATO assets, infrastructure and other services under 1999 Berlin-plus agreement between EU and NATO.

 October 2009 the new NATO secretary general, Rasmussen, spoke about emerging security risks: “(...) We know that Arctic ice is retreating. In fact the Arctic is warming faster than other part of the world. This is not necessarily a threat. In many ways it’s an opportunity – opening up the Northwest Passage cuts 4000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to Asia. You can bet a lot of companies have done that math. But we can’t wish away the security implications. An entire side of North America will be much more exposed. Increased shipping means a greater need for search and rescue. And there will be competition for resources that had, until now, been covered under ice. When it comes to climate change, building security doesn’t only mean with the military. But it also doesn’t exclude the military either; on the contrary, our traditional security structures will have an important role to play. Which brings me my third point: I believe that NATO should begin a discussion on how we – NATO as an organization, and individual Allies as well – can do better to address the security aspects of climate change.”

 August 2011 Canada held military manoeuvres in the high north with the participation of more than 1000 troops, of CF-18 fighter-planes, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, a war vessel and infantry sections. American and Danish troops participated last year in similar exercises. The Canadian government announced to open a permanent military training school on Baffin Island in the Arctic and wants to build six till eight new patrol ships to guard the Northwest Passage. Although Canada and the USA have a long standing alliance, one witnesses growing nerves in Washington over various standpoints Canadian political leaders are taking concerning certain territorial claims. The US is explicitly opposed to the claim as would the Northwest Passage be Canadian territory.

In the USA one can hear repeatedly that the Pentagon should pay more attention to the evolutions concerning the Arctic region. The actual submarines do not match the challenges, and the coastal guard has only three old icebreakers at its disposal. President Obama answered this situation in the month of April 2011 by a reshuffle of the geographic repartition within the command structures so that Northcom was given an important responsibility over the Arctic region and the Bering Strait between the US (Alaska) and Russia. Northcom is to develop and defend plans to increase and modernize the specific military assets for this region.

Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, announced the installation of two new North Pole war brigades – 3 tot 5000 troops each – in Murmansk and Archangelsk, a move by which Moscow will take the lead concerning a permanent, military operational presence in the high North. “We will be setting up a network of support bases along the entire Northern Sea Route where Emergency Ministry officers will be deployed to respond promptly and efficiently to any unexpected developments along the Northern Sea Route,” Putin said. Russia will expand its fleet by six new icebreakers. Plans are being discussed to build a year round open harbour on the Yamal Peninsula, just south of Novaya Zemlya.

Discussions over property rights in the Arctic region used to be purely academic work, but with the melting of the ice cap due to the climate warming up, the strategic importance of the Arctic has become clearer than ever: access to huge mineral reserves specifically oil and gas; new sea routes. The Arctic doesn't belong to any country and the use of the region is regulated by international agreements. A UN convention authorizes the coastal countries to exploit a limited exclusive economic zone; further use of the mineral wealth falls under the International Seabed Authority. Following the ratification of the UN Convention each party acquired the right to formulate its claims for an expansion of the zones. Norway, Russia, Canada and Denmark – speaking for Greenland and Faroer Islands – have made use of this right. The USA does not recognize the UN as regulator in this matter.

The tendency to show military force around the Arctic zone is obvious, but the parties concerned keep repeating in official statements that they will use diplomacy based on international law to solve their disputes. Scientific expedition from Canada, Denmark, the USA and Russia are to strengthen the geographical claims of each of them by proving with geological facts that their continental shelf reaches till the North Pole. Each country is stating that the Lomonosov Ridge under the polar icecap forms a continuation of its territory. It is generally expected that Russia will introduce before the UN in 2012 its claim on new Arctic territory.

A conflict over part of the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia was definitively solved in July 2011 through an equal partition of the area between both parties. Diplomatic circles emphasize that conflicts can be solved peacefully. Indeed, the governments of the countries concerned keep repeating their readiness for dialogue with the others, but say in the same messages that they will defend their geopolitical interests. This defense seems in the actual stage include a military pillar.

Georges Spriet

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