Polar Geopolitics: Security, Sovereignty and Stewardship

By: Prof Klaus Dodds
An unbiased institutional body working as an overseer and comprising of a legislative organ to construct and modulate strong political frameworks and agendas that demand sustainable approach in the exploration and exploitation of the rare and precious resources of the Polar Region is the need of the hour.

The Polar Regions have returned to widespread public attention. Media reports of melting sea ice, the plight of polar bears and whales, the sustainability of indigenous livelihoods and the long term prospects for Northern communities, resource exploration and exploitation, and the ‘claiming’ of the Arctic and Antarctic seabeds have garnered international interest. Repeated framings of the Polar Regions as ‘frontier spaces’ at the apparent mercy of rapacious states and corporations have contributed to this febrile atmosphere. While often critical of this kind of reporting, Arctic states such as Canada, Norway and Russia on the one hand, and on the other hand, polar claimant states such as Australia, Chile and New Zealand have all played their part in raising the apparent stakes, albeit in very different geographical and political environments.

Geopolitical machinations in both Polar Regions have been in evidence, from the building of new scientific bases to the commissioning of replacement icebreakers and new policy statements/strategies by geographically proximate states in the Arctic and Antarctic. Meanwhile, oceanographic and geophysical research has gathered momentum within the context of evidentiary submissions of extended continental shelves to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Resource speculation, particularly in the Arctic, has added extra interest and verve to policy-related discussions. It is now, for example, considered routine to discuss the possible independence of Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark if large quantities of hydrocarbons were thought to be commercially extractable. Such discussions increasingly now involve a range of actors, including not only the coastal states and the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty System consultative parties, but also regional organisations such as the European Union, growing interest from Asian states including China, Malaysia and Singapore, environmental NGOs, and political representatives of indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The net result has been unsettling. The Polar Regions are now no longer being conceptualised in ways that emphasise their exceptionality. It is striking how melting sea ice/permafrost change coupled with deepening and intensifying processes and practices associated with globalisation are being said to be transformative. While more pronounced in contemporary discussions of the Arctic region, there is a growing sense in which the Polar Regions are no longer being considered disconnected from wider circuits of ideas, technology, people, services, industries and so on. Even if we acknowledge that the Polar Regions were never quite as divorced from those wider current as was sometimes assumed, it is undeniably the case that there is growing evidence of increased interest in the fate of the Polar Regions by extra-territorial parties and processes including climate change. Snow and ice, in that regard, are at the forefront of debates about human futures and the manner in which the Polar Regions are caught up in debates about fearful, hopeful and undesirable futures.

Polar Geopolitics: Security, Sovereignty and Stewardship

In the remainder of this short commentary, published to coincide with the International Conference on Science and Geopolitics in the Arctic and Antarctic, March 2012, New Delhi, attention is given to three logics that are driving contemporary Polar Geopolitics. My focus on logics is based on an interest in understanding the multi-faceted nature of Polar Regions and resisting any inclination to re-produce simplistic framings such as a ‘scramble for resources’ and ‘the great game’ which reveal either the ethnocentric limitations of authors and/or a hard-headed often realist inclination to believe that the Polar Regions are ‘empty spaces’ devoid of culture and governance. In the case of the Arctic, in particular, this is a complex region with a mosaic of human communities numbering some 4 million people.

What I think we can usefully do is to identify three logics surrounding security, sovereignty and stewardship that help us better understand why the Polar Regions are contested spaces in the sense of their being competing ideas about how they might be imagined let alone managed. In the context of security, the most useful example to consider is the Arctic. For coastal states such as Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States, a key aim is to police and patrol their Arctic territories including areas where they may enjoy further sovereign rights in the central Arctic Ocean. In the name of security, a variety of spatial strategies might be deployed such as dispatching warships and aircraft on patrolling missions, organising military exercises (e.g. Exercise Cold Response in Northern Scandinavia) and watching carefully what other parties are contemplating let alone investing in when it comes to military capabilities. In general terms, there is a constant pressure to watch and monitor the behaviour of others, especially Russia when it comes to the other coastal states. The aim of the security logic is to ensure that these interested parties can monitor, patrol and secure their borders.

The logic of sovereignty is more concerned with regulating activities within national territories. So in both the Arctic and Antarctic, coastal and claimant states alike (notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty) remain eager to demonstrate and perform their sovereign capacities. Rather than policing, these states are intent on either disciplining others and/ or exploiting their sovereign territories. With the restrictions imposed on claimant states under the terms of Article IV of the Antarctic Treaty this provides plenty of opportunity for awkwardness. There is no shortage of Australian commentators, for example, prepared to write and speak about how Chinese scientific and logistical investment in Australian Antarctic Territory is imperilling their sovereign interests. I have referred to this tendency as a kind of ‘sovereignty watch’ whereby there is near constant reproduction of anxiety and fear regarding the behaviour of others. In the Arctic, coastal states such as Canada remain committed to imposing ever-greater restrictions on the movement of foreign-registered vessels through the Northwest Passages in support of Canadian sovereignty. The spectre of a possible maritime incident in the future serves as a useful accomplice to this sovereignty performance.

Finally, there is the logic of stewardship that can either be used by coastal and claimant states to reinforce their security/sovereignty strategies and/or bolster the interests of extra-territorial parties. In the case of the former, Arctic coastal states invoked stewardship as a mechanism for reinforcing their dominant role in the Arctic Ocean while other parties such as China and the EU argued that their interest was driven, in part, by a concern for the future state of the Arctic. For what is at stake here is life itself – the ecological well being of the Arctic and the role of agents in shaping its future. The aim here in contradistinction to security (policing) and sovereignty (disciplining/exploiting) is triage. The dominant mission for inter-governmental organisations such as the Arctic Council is responding, and even anticipating, ecological threats to the Arctic region (e.g. oil spills). In May 2011, the Arctic Council members agreed to a legally binding search and rescue agreement and the current Swedish chairmanship is focusing on developing a more robust oil spill management strategy.

Retreating or thinning sea ice in the Arctic Ocean plays a significant role in reinforcing all three of these Polar Geopolitics logics. Understanding the interplay of security, sovereignty and stewardship is critical not least because it will help us develop a more nuanced understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic. We can better appreciate not only the spatial strategies of states and other organisations but also the ethical imperatives that drive parties to act, to invest, to exploit, to protect, and to simply live in the Polar Regions. The Arctic and Antarctic are not empty space; they are complex, diverse and deeply interconnected regions that deserve our careful consideration mindful of the fact that they are caught up in discourses and practices associated with citizenship, ecology, exploitation, nationalism and patriotism.

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