The Creeping Militarization of the Arctic (Page 2 of 2)

Apart from Nanook, Canada has also been holding two other military drills in the region: Operation Nunalivut in the High Arctic and Operation Nunakput in the western Arctic. Norway, meanwhile, has played its own part in the securitization of the region. In July 2013, it conducted one of the largest Arctic maneuvers ever — Exercise Cold Response – in which more than 16,000 troops from 14 countries are believed to have participated. Despite its landmark pact with Russia over the Barents Sea in 2010, Norway apparently still fears a Russian takeover of the Arctic.

Moscow, meanwhile, appears concerned with the bilateral endeavors of other Arctic countries to press joint claims in the disputed regions. In 2012, Canada and the U.S. reportedly conducted a 42-day joint Arctic expedition to survey the continental shelf – only two weeks after a Russian research vessel was dispatched on a similar mission. Russia also seems anxious about the May 2010 military agreement between Canada and Denmark pledging closer collaboration in the Arctic, spanning the gamut of “consultations, information exchanges, visits, and military exercises.” In a sign of solidarity with Canada, Denmark even deployed a unit to participate in the Operation Nunalivut exercise in the High Arctic earlier this year.

While most military developments in the region have concerned the Northern Sea Route, the gradual opening up of the North West passage too might create further tensions. In January 2009, a U.S. Presidential National Security Directive contested – albeit indirectly – Canada’s sovereignty claims over part of the Beaufort Sea, also holding the Northwest Passage to have the legal status of “international waters.” This month, as a Danish-owned ship, the Nordic Orion, became the first cargo vessel to use the Northwest Passage as an international shipping route, the argument between the U.S. and Canada has been joined again.

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Arctic Council Politics

A key reason why security issues are not easily discussed by Arctic Council nations is that five of the eight nations in the group are also NATO members, whose charter commits member states to mutual military assistance. This appears to preclude the possibility of fair and balanced deliberations on the territorial disagreements in the region. For instance, despite Canada’s sovereignty disputes with the United States (over the Beaufort Sea) and with Denmark (over the Hans Island), the three NATO partners have been coordinating their military strategies in the Arctic. Their collective participation in this year’s Nanook exercises, gives Moscow a sense that NATO countries are ganging up against Russia.

To complicate matters, the Arctic Council is formally prohibited from discussing military security in the Arctic. Members consequently discuss security issues in informal meetings, like the one that took place on a Canadian military base in early 2012. Needless to say, the existing mistrust has prevented any substantive discussion on addressing security concerns in the region.

Securing Asian Interests

Since they were granted “observer” status in May 2013, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have become more conscious of the politics of the Arctic. Even while recognizing the resource potential of the region and the importance of the North West Passage and the Northern Sea Route in future trade and energy transits, observer states realize that in all matters strictly strategic, it is Arctic Council states that call the shots. Needless to say, the slow militarization of the region is turning out to be the single biggest cause of worry among external stakeholders – especially against the backdrop of an increasingly conspicuous Chinese presence. The developments on the security front are being perceived as an indication that the future militarization of the Arctic will be marked by a growing desperation among Arctic states to stake control over the region’s resources and sea lanes.

Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.

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