World

Frosty relations over future of the Arctic

Iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland near the arctic circle Image copyright AP
Image caption There is concern about the impact of climate change in the Arctic

When, like Evon Peter, you know your ancestors have lived, hunted and fished the same land for 14,000 years, the concerns of nations which have existed only for a few hundred can seem trivial.

Yet in the Arctic, the proximity of Russia and the US is becoming hard to ignore.

On Monday, President Obama flew to Anchorage in Alaska, to address GLACIER. The acronym stands for Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience.

The focus was on climate change. Evon Peter, from the Gwich'in nation, was in the audience.

"In my short lifetime of four decades, I've seen the tundra drying up, an increase in the number of forest fires, lakes drying up," he told The World This Weekend on BBC Radio 4.

"Furthermore, the permafrost is melting and the earth is literally falling from beneath our feet and homes are falling into the ocean and falling into rivers."

The title of the conference was optimistic, and, to some observers, unrealistic.

"Important as climate change is, I'm not sure for the Arctic it is really the theme to discuss," says Professor Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

In one sense, though, climate change is the catalyst for everything else that is happening in the Arctic.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Russia previously staked its claim to the territory by placing its flag on the Arctic seabed in 2007

Melting ice makes the waters navigable - it also opens up the potential for exploiting minerals under the sea.

Mr Peter told me a '"frontier mentality" coupled with distrust between nations could lead to uncontrolled development.

At the beginning of August, Russia renewed its claim for ownership of one million square kilometres of the Arctic shelf; a claim which a few years back saw Moscow make the rather theatrical gesture of planting its flag on the sea bed.

Although other Arctic nations, such as Denmark and Canada, will challenge this through the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the US cannot because President Obama has failed to persuade Congress to sign up.

Law of the Sea Treaty:

Negotiated in the 1970s, and adopted in 1982. The US has yet to sign up.

Designed to establish a comprehensive set of rules governing the oceans.

Calls for technology and wealth transfers from developed to undeveloped nations.

Requires signatories to adopt regulations and laws to control pollution of the marine environment.

Also establishes specific jurisdictional limits on the ocean area that countries may claim, including a 12-mile territorial sea limit and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone limit.

Full text of the treaty

There is something else, though, to worry the neighbours; what Professor Baev calls "an arms race with your own shadow".

President Putin has been building up his country's presence in the region, even though others have not.

"Militarisation is really the main priority in Russian policy," said Professor Baev.

"Certainly the Arctic neighbours are very concerned about this effort. Russia year by year is increasing its military profile in the Arctic."

Just before the conference opened, I put that to Marc Toner, from the US State Department.

"We've seen Russia station some of its military assets in the Arctic. It's something we need to look at," he said.

However, he said some of the equipment could be used for search and rescue, for example, and that events like GLACIER provided the opportunity to discuss with the Russians what they are doing.

Yet it was noticeable that of the eight countries with territory in the Arctic who attended GLACIER, Russia didn't send a government minister, though its ambassador to the US was there.

Arctic Council members:

Canada

Denmark

Finland

Iceland

Norway

Russia

Sweden

US

An announcement from the White House, suggests that the Obama administration is well aware of the potential for trouble in the Arctic.

It plans to speed up the acquisition of a new ice breaker, and ask Congress to authorise more.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US plans to commission new ice breakers

Russia, though, has 41 such ships. No wonder Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the US Coastguard, has complained that his country "really isn't even in the game".

Last year, Russia annexed Crimea. There were protests and sanctions but few expect the territory to return to Ukraine.

How much easier to simply abrogate a section of the sea bed, especially if what you see as a legitimate claim is rejected and you have the muscle your neighbours lack.

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