Urgent need to establish intl rules for peaceful use of Arctic Ocean

The Arctic Ocean should not be used as a venue for conflicts among major powers, as there are growing hopes for the development of natural resources there and the utilization of the region as a sea route. To maintain a free and open sea, it is essential to establish international rules.

Russia has been increasing its influence in the Arctic Ocean, taking advantage of having the most territory of any country along its shores. Russia has made it obligatory for foreign ships passing through the Northern Sea Route, which it manages, to apply for the passage in advance and to have Russian icebreakers lead them along the route. This is a strategic move to keep the region under Russian control.

Since the beginning of this year, movements of the Russian military have also been conspicuous in the region. The Russian military recently released footage of exercises in which, for the first time, three Russian submarines broke through the Arctic ice. Russia has also conducted a military-led environmental survey called the “Arctic expedition.” The role of Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is responsible for defending the Arctic, has been strengthened.

Behind this series of moves is the increasing strategic value of the Arctic Ocean in terms of both the economy and security.

Annual average temperatures in the Arctic have risen by about 3 C over the past 50 years, and global warming there is progressing three times faster than the worldwide average. The Northern Sea Route is currently available for nine to 10 months a year and is expected to be available throughout the year within a few years.

There is a route connecting Europe and Asia by way of the Suez Canal, but the Arctic Ocean route is about one-third shorter. This gives the passage the advantage of reducing transportation costs.

It is estimated that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of the world’s natural gas reserves are located in the Arctic. Momentum for future natural resource development is expected to increase there.

However, there are no norms in the Arctic, comparable to the Antarctic Treaty, that stipulate the freezing of territorial claims and the peaceful use of the region. It is necessary to establish international rules to avert moves to surround territory and military tensions in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed, at a meeting in May of the Arctic Council, which consists of eight countries along the Arctic Ocean, including the United States, Russia and countries of northern Europe, that the “rule of law” was important to make the Arctic a no-conflict region.

The council has adopted a declaration on cooperation for peace and stability in the Arctic, but there is no prospect of setting such rules. Western members of the council should urge Russia to refrain from taking unilateral actions and to participate actively in discussions on international norms.

Although China is a country with no territory in the region, it has included the Arctic in its Belt and Road Initiative to create a huge economic bloc. In March, it also positioned natural resource development in the Arctic as a national priority issue. China is among the top countries in the world in terms of its number and capacity of icebreakers. It is necessary to be wary of China’s future movements.

This year, Japan started building an icebreaker for Arctic weather surveys. The move is aimed at helping predict heavy snowfalls, heat waves and the paths of typhoons, among other phenomena. Japan needs to support the United States in its efforts to stabilize the Arctic, and to get involved in the rule-making process.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 30, 2021.