Photo - Andrea Charron web

The Arctic, an ocean first and foremost, is ringed by eight states: five are NATO members, three are non-NATO states. If we include all twelve of the Arctic Council observer states, all have a connection to the Arctic. Does this mean, however, that NATO should focus on the Arctic? The first question to ask is what is the likelihood of an armed attack by a non-NATO state against an Arctic-NATO state, the trigger for possible Article 5 intervention?

An analysis of the likelihood of an act of military aggression against an Arctic state is considered very low. Certainly, in 2008, the five Arctic coastal states reaffirmed their commitment to the legal framework provided by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to settle any possible disputes in an orderly fashion (Ilulissat Declaration). When one ponders if NATO should be concerned about the Arctic, the actual question being asked is what threat does Russia pose to the other Arctic states?

Despite alarmist rhetoric on the part of Russia and an increase in military hardware spending, an examination of Russia’s Arctic economic imperative suggests Russia’s national interest lies in the Arctic continuing to be a region of cooperation and adherence to international law. It has sunk most of its GDP eggs into the Arctic basket. With three rivers the size of the Mississippi emptying into the Arctic Ocean, and Murmansk and Indiga possibly poised to rival major ports around the world for business, the Arctic, via resource extraction and shipping (especially of hydrocarbons), is hoped to be Russia’s economic powerhouse. Conducting war with the other Arctic states or in the Arctic Ocean would be unwise for business.

Indeed, Russia would like to encourage transit of its Northern Sea Route for a fee with an ice-breaker escort and navigational control. To date, however, most vessels accessing it have been Russian-flagged. Nonetheless, example after example reinforces Russia’s respect for international law as it applies to the Arctic. NATO states will always be wary of Russia because of history. But with the largest Arctic frontage, Russia, statistically-speaking, is most at risk of an event in its territory requiring a response or action.

The other concern often raised is China’s “designs” on the Arctic. To be sure, its economic growth and military rise make “neo-realists” nervous; the world for them is never more unstable as when a new power looks poised to challenge the current hegemon. Yet China’s policies with respect to the Arctic have been within the bounds of international law and squarely focused on national interests such as access to potential resources and shipping routes in the Arctic, and on understanding the global climate change impacts most apparent at the poles.

China has still not (yet) developed an Arctic foreign policy strategy and initial hawkish rhetoric is now more focused on cooperation. China has the largest polar research organization in the world – namely the Polar Research Institute of China. This institute, China’s decision to create a civilian Coast Guard, its recent acceptance as an observer to the Arctic Council, and its adoption of the latest propulsion and hull-shape designs are enormous potential contributions to the governance, scientific and transportation communities, not automatic threats to NATO-member states. Moreover, China’s extreme sensitivities to issues of sovereignty (read the South China Seas) militate against exacerbating sovereignty anxieties of the Arctic littoral states – the majority being NATO members.

Canada bristles at NATO military activity with an Arctic focus while Norway presses for more NATO and Russia-Norway operations. On the one hand, Canada does not wish to alarm Russia unduly. Potential NATO exercises in the Arctic Ocean, with Russia in control of more than half of the Arctic coastline, are provocative. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has tried to downplay the media’s and Ottawa’s militarization-of-the-Arctic rhetoric of late. Furthermore, organizations like the Arctic Council (with limited membership) and binational agreements (for example, NORAD and two recent U.S.-Canada Arctic military agreements on cooperation and training as well as exercises) are Canada’s preferred aegises for Arctic exercises and activities. The reason for many of Canada’s Arctic regulations (the now mandatory vessel reporting service for the Arctic (NORDREG), the expanded jurisdiction of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act, its characterization of the Northwest Passage as “historic, internal waters”) is to control activity in the North– NATO or otherwise.

For now the Arctic remains the “high North [but] low tension.”

Andrea Charron is deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.