Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
May 09th, 2023
Serena Camici is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying International Relations.
Far from being just an icy tourist destination, the Arctic Circle is ripe ground for renewed geopolitical conflict. After the Cold War it has remained a relatively quiet region – until now. With its strategic position and treasure-trove of natural resources, the Arctic is an increasingly important place of interest for several state actors.  The current international order governing the Arctic will need to accommodate economic and political competition, heightened military activity, and climate change that will occur in the Arctic region over the next half of the 21st century.
Since the Arctic Circle comprises a set of ice seas rather than territorial land mass, it lacks a specific legal regime.  Instead, it falls under the order of the UN Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). In 1982, the UNCLOS established the sovereign right for states to exploit the natural resources (such as mineral and petroleum resources and seabed organisms) that lay within their Exclusive Economic Zones, or 200 nautical miles beyond a country’s territorial limit. [3 and 4] The eight coastal states that have territory and territorial waters within the Circle as defined by UNCLOS are Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States.  Together the “Arctic 8” form a forum of cooperation known as the Arctic Council.
What exactly is at stake in the Arctic? A 2008 US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic is home to 25% of the world’s undiscovered hydrocarbon resources and 9% of the world’s coal and other economically critical minerals.  As climate change causes polar ice sheets to melt, it becomes easier to drill for oil and gas. Reliance on fossil fuels will push energy insecure states to seek these fossil fuels. Most notably, Russia has started construction on an oil terminal as a part of Rosneft’s Vostok Oil Project, likely as a solution to Western sanctions on Russian oil.  Also, as a result of ice sheet melting new shipping routes will open up, such as the Northwest and Northeast Passages and the Northern Sea Route.  The question of who will control these routes remains up in the air. Under UNCLOS ships have the right to free passage through the Arctic sea, but it is possible that the economic competition for the Arctic’s resources will bring a change to this norm.
Beyond economic advantage, the Arctic holds political and military significance as well. Located between the territories of two major geopolitical powers, North America and Eurasia, the Arctic Circle is a prime location for militarization. Military exercises, drills, and even testing grounds have already been established on indigenous lands in the Arctic Circle.  While Arctic states are not currently poised to engage in direct conflict in the Arctic, an increase in military activity is worrisome. Not only does it pose a threat to national security, it may produce an Arctic arms race.
Given these factors, states are increasingly motivated to lay down their Arctic claims beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones. However, the legal process to do so is lengthy. In order to establish an extended territorial claim, states will need to submit evidence to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf proving that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical mile limit. Such evidence must consider geophysical characteristics, such as the slope of the seabed and the thickness of its sediment.  Many extended continental shelf claims overlap. Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia claim territory in the Arctic Circle that intersects. While some states are seeking broader territorial claims, other nations are interested in establishing an economic presence in the region to reap its economic and political rewards. As one of the thirty-eight observer states to the Arctic Council, China has established economic activity and increasing relations with Greenland, seeking to deepen its engagement within the Arctic region.
The “Scramble for the Arctic” has serious implications for the current Arctic order, the environment, and the international community. With increasing economic activities in the region, infrastructure projects pose greater risk for pollution through oil spills and disruption of natural resources. It will be interesting to observe how shifting geopolitical relations will alter the Arctic order and its relevance to the international legal regime. Who truly has the legal right to the Arctic and its riches? Is it even possible to keep the Arctic as a part of the global commons?
 “Geopolitical Competition in The Arctic Circle.” Harvard International Review, December 2, 2020. https://hir.harvard.edu/the-arctic-circle/.
 Bryce, Emma. “Who Owns the Arctic?” Live Science, October 13, 2019. https://www.livescience.com/who-owns-the-arctic.html.
 “Legal Order in the Arctic.” Federal ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.bmuv.de/en/topics/europe-international/international/multilateral-cooperation/the-arctic/legal-order-in-the-arctic#:~:text=The%20UN%20Convention%20on%20the,up%20to%20200%20nautical%20miles.
 Marsh, Alex. “More to Maritime Boundaries: The Extended Continental Shelf.” Sovereign Limits, February 4, 2022. https://sovereignlimits.com/blog/more-to-maritime-boundaries-the-extended-continental-shelf.
 “Arctic States.” The Arctic Council, Accessed April 6, 2023. https://arctic-council.org/about/timeline/.
 Volpe, Marco. “The torturous path of China’s win-win strategy in Greenland.” The Arctic Institute, March 24, 2020. https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/tortuous-path-china-win-win-strategy-greenland/.
 “Russia’s Rosneft starts construction of a huge Arctic oil terminal.” Reuters, July 26, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/russias-rosneft-starts-construction-huge-arctic-oil-terminal-2022-07-26/#:~:text=MOSCOW%2C%20July%2026%20(Reuters),of%20the%20Northern%20Sea%20Route.
 Pérez, Elena Conde and Marzia Scopelliti. “Arctic Region.” Oxford Bibliographies, Last Modified April 26, 2018. https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780199796953/obo-9780199796953-0090.xml.
 Klimenko, Ekaterina. “The Geopolitics of A Changing Arctic.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, December 2019. https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-12/sipribp1912_geopolitics_in_the_arctic.pdf.
 “About the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Project.” U.S. Department of State, Accessed April 6, 2023. https://www.state.gov/about-the-u-s-extended-continental-shelf-project/.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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