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Race for Arctic mostly rhetoric

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Russian television contacted me last night asking me to go on a program about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources -- especially oil and gas -- that become accessible when it's gone.

The media always love conflict, and now that the Cold War is long gone, there's no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flashpoints and what are the strategies? It's great fun to speculate about possible wars.

In the end I didn't do the interview because the Skype didn't work, so I didn't get the chance to rain on their parade. But here's what I would said to the Russians if my server hadn't gone down at the wrong time.

First, you should never ask the barber if you need a haircut. The armed forces in every country are always looking for reasons to worry about impending conflict, because that's the only reason their governments will spend money on them.

Sometimes they will be right to worry, and sometimes they will be wrong, but right or wrong, they will predict conflict. Like the barbers, it's in their professional interest to say you need their services.

So you'd be better off to ask somebody who doesn't have a stake in the game. As I don't own a single warship, I'm practically ideal for the job. And I don't think there will be any significant role for the armed forces in the Arctic, although there is certainly going to be a huge investment in exploiting the region's resources.

There are three separate "resources" in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes that are opening up to commercial traffic along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits that can be drilled once the ice retreats. And in the water in between, there is the planet's last unfished ocean.

The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes the Northwest Passage that weaves between Canada's Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Practically every summer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels north to declare his determination to defend Canada's Arctic sovereignty from -- well, it's not clear from exactly whom, but it's a great photo op.

Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it's all much ado about nothing. The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia's "Northern Sea Route" will get the traffic, because it's already open and much safer to navigate.

Then there's the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed, which the U.S. Geological Survey has forecast may contain almost one-fourth of the world's remaining oil and gas resources. But from a military point of view, there's only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.

There are only four areas where the boundaries are disputed. Two are between Canada and its eastern and western neighbours in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark (which is responsible for Greenland's defence).

In the Bering Strait, there is a treaty defining the seabed boundary between the United States and Russia, signed in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Duma has refused to ratify it. The legal uncertainty caused by the dispute, however, is more likely to deter future investment in drilling there than lead to war.

And then there was the seabed-boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year, the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between NATO (of which Norway is a member) and the Russian Federation.

Which leaves the fish, and it's hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world's fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out, as they are currently doing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

If the countries with Arctic coastlines want to preserve this resource, they can only do so by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there, too, with agreed catch limits, since they are mostly international waters. They will be driven to co-operate, in their own interests.

So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact the ice is melting, which will speed global warming (because open water absorbs far more heat from the sun than highly reflective ice), and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap and raise sea levels worldwide by seven metres. But that's a problem for another day.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J1

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