It is a dim January day in 2010. Patrol boats with ice-resistant hulls and flying Canada's maple leaf from their sterns are advancing into the desolate worlds of rock and ice north of Hudson Bay. They are there to drop off a group of elite troops known as Ice Rangers, soldiers trained for combat above the Arctic Circle. The CBC television network is reporting live from the largest military exercise in Canadian history. Soon thereafter, 15 million people watch the report entitled "Is this the Beginning of the Next Cold War?" on YouTube.
The other nations bordering the Arctic follow suit. The Danish navy deploys vessels off the coast of Greenland, Russian frigates plow through drifting ice along the melting fringes of the polar ice cap, and the United States builds a gigantic naval base at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Washington is officially calling it a new bridgehead in the war on terror. But the Americans' real objective is to aggressively assert their claims to undersea minerals, including natural gas and oil. The parties are fighting over polar claims before the International Maritime Court in Hamburg, each presenting its own expert reports on the situation. The oil companies are collecting their facts and have begun test-drilling—with military protection. Instead of securing binding legal title, the nations involved are continually beefing up their troop contingents to protect drilling platforms.
This scenario, according to the Global Business Network (GBN), a respected San Francisco-based consulting firm, could describe the struggle over the mineral-rich ocean floor in the near future. And although it is just that—a scenario—it does seem depressingly realistic.
The Last Global Act of Colonization
For many years now, nations have been developing strategies to gain access to the immense resources beneath the ocean floor, hoping to devise the best tactic to assert and expand claims to ownership as well as to prevent other nations from forcibly asserting their own claims.
Last week, ministers from Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and the United States met in Greenland to explore ways to prevent a "wild race for the North Pole," as the meeting's Danish host, Per Stig Møller, called it. "If one considers the minerals hidden in the Arctic depths," Møller said, "and the current oil price, we'll see that a great deal of money is at stake."
It is still a rivalry that has not made many headlines, and the vessels involved today are still little more than a handful of research ships measuring how far the continental shelf—that is, the shallower ocean floor bordering coastlines—extends out into the ocean. The continental shelf extends for an average distance of 74 kilometers (46 miles) from coastlines worldwide. But in some cases it juts out significantly further. The Siberian Shelf, for example, extends 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) offshore. The edge of a continental shelf is always followed by the continental slope.
Depth readings and rock samples corresponding to rock found on the mainland are needed to demonstrate the breadth of a continental shelf. Any nation claiming an especially large shelf zone must submit the necessary evidence to the United Nations. This is the only way a nation can establish a claim to expand its territorial waters.
Who Owns the Ocean?
All of this revolves around a central, overriding question: Who will own the oceans in the future, or at least their wide peripheries? The answer depends in large part on the extent of the continent shelf that maritime states can claim, that is, on how far their portion of the continental shelf extends underwater. And, once again, the industrialized nations—which have set the tone since the Berlin Conference in 1885—are holding the best cards. They are in the best position to pay the cost of research needed to successfully back their claims.
As a rule, all maritime states are entitled to claim an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers). Within this zone, the countries enjoy sovereign rights, meaning that they own everything that crawls, swims or is deposited there.
If a nation can prove that its continental shelf protrudes farther out to sea, the CLCS can grant it an exploitation zone of 350 nautical miles (648 kilometers) or even more, in special cases.
This opportunity has prompted some governments to go to great lengths to expand their zones. A parliamentary vice president, for example, who is willing to be submerged in polar waters on behalf of his country is a novelty in world politics. On Aug. 2, 2007, the Russian politician Artur Chilingarov, 66, boarded the "Mir-1" diving capsule from on board the Akademik Fyodorov research ship and descended to the floor of the Arctic Ocean to a depth of 4,261 meters (13,980 feet). Light from the craft's floodlights skipped across yellowish sludge. There wasn't a living creature in sight.
The capsule began to creak under the pressure of vast amounts of water, "as if the sea wanted to crush us," a member of the expedition team later said. But the crew courageously completed its mission. A robotic arm deposited a small, acrylic Russian flag attached to a stand made of rust-proof titanium onto the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
When the explorers returned home, Russia's then President Vladimir Putin met with them at Novo-Ogaryovo, his residence outside Moscow, where he announced that such expeditions are "important, not just for the sake of science, but also in geopolitical terms, as seen from the perspective of Russia's interests in this part of the world."
"The Arctic has always been Russian and remains Russian today," the white-bearded patriot Chilingarov added. "If we do not stake out our claim to the northern ocean floors, others will." Chilingarov, an oceanographer and a member of Putin's party, was promptly awarded the title "Hero of the Russian Federation" and named a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.
His country is claiming a total of 1.2 million square kilometers (463,200 square miles) of ocean floor, which is believed to hold billions of tons of oil and natural gas. Moscow bases its claim on Article 76 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the term "continental shelf," and it is hoping—optimistically—to be awarded a 350-nautical-mile zone.
But Moscow's chances are not good. Its first application in 2002 was rejected on the grounds that the Russians had not provided data sufficient to support their claim. But the country has not backed down. "Our presence in the Arctic should be obvious to everyone," said Rear Admiral Andrei Tkatchov. Soon strategic bombers were flying missions over the Arctic Ocean, like thundering harbingers of the conflict outlined in the GBN's scenario. And soon the newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta was invoking images of a "battle for the Arctic."
'A Race to the Final Frontiers'
Any member of the UN convention that wishes to revise it territorial zone must submit the relevant petition within 10 years of ratifying the treaty. For 122 countries, this deadline is May 13, 2009.
A government can also submit its requests in advance of the deadline, or it can submit interim requests. The New York commission accepts and processes such petitions twice a year. But the great debate over who owns the oceans has only just begun, and it has begun less than a year away from the date when dozens of petitions will arrive at the CLCS's office.
Australia provided the initial impetus. The government in Canberra signed the UN treaty in 1982, while at the same time ratifying its own maritime agenda. Like his predecessor, the country's current energy minister, Martin Ferguson, is convinced that the murky depths of the oceans are "a goldmine of unimagined proportions."
This has encouraged other countries—and especially France—to launch a surveying offensive. Walter Roest, director of the Paris-based Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER), calls it a "race to the final frontiers." But the UN does not provide arbitration for disputes, and instead such matters are left to lawyers and diplomats.
Their experts, however, confirm—partly through the analysis of rock samples—whether an underwater plateau does in fact extend as far as a country would like. If the decision is in the affirmative, any other country can file an objection within three months, in which case the dossier is returned and all claims remain frozen.
Russia, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the United States have now chosen the obvious route by meeting at the Greenland conference to work toward a mutually acceptable solution to the Arctic question. But the fact that things are progressing peacefully now is no guarantee for the future, when the exploitation of natural resources from shelf zones becomes a profitable, everyday business. The potential for greed—and, therefore, conflict—is enormous.
The coastal zones, as they are currently defined, cover an estimated area of 60 million square kilometers (23 million square miles) worldwide. This could be increased by 15 million square kilometers (5.8 million square miles), the equivalent of three-quarters of the area of North America. France alone, thanks to its overseas possessions, could grow from about 11 million to 12 million square kilometers (4.2 million to 4.6 million square miles).
The French have already conducted 14 surveying trips on board IFREMER frigates, the Institute for Polar Research's research ship Marion Dufresne, and navy frigates. Geologist Roland Vially, a team of 15 scientists and two dozen sailors spent more than four weeks on board the Marion Dufresne, examining the ocean floor at depths between 200 and 5,000 meters (656 and 16,404 feet).
A wide-angle sonar system supplied the data the team used to develop a 3-D map of the ocean's floor. The sonic depth finder enabled the scientists to examine the structure of volcanic rock at the point of transition between the Kerguelen Plateau and the deep sea. The documents will soon be submitted to the CLCS.
Roland Vially is satisfied with his mission. "We wanted to stake out our underwater claims, in this case, against the Australians," Vially says. "There were no difficulties." In places where there was overlap—for example, in the Kerguelen Islands and off the coast of New Caledonia—the French came to an agreement with Canberra or were at least willing to exchange research results with their Australian counterparts.
Players Large and Small
The only real spat so far has been between Australia and tiny East Timor. Oil is already being produced between the two countries, and they have managed to establish a line of compromise. But poor states like East Timor have neither the power to successfully weather conflicts nor the ability to back up their claims with scientific data.
And what about the United States, the world's only remaining superpower? It hasn't yet ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea. For a change, this is the work of neither the Bush administration nor American industry, but of ultra-conservative senators who see any new UN treaty as subjugation and have blocked the necessary two-thirds' majority in the US Senate.
Instead, the United States makes do by conducting its own surveys. This year, it will spend $5.6 million (€3.6 million) to prove that its continental shelf extends further than 200 nautical miles and that the continental shelf in northern Alaska is 200 kilometers (124 miles) wider than was previously assumed.
Neighboring Canada has already taken the kind of action portrayed in the GBN's scenario. After the Russians sent long-range bombers over the Arctic for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Ottawa mobilized two warships, a submarine and 600 soldiers and police officers to participate in Operation Nanook. Prime Minister Stephen Harper also announced that his country would build up to eight armed icebreaker ships to conduct polar patrols at an estimated cost of $3.1 billion (€2 billion). Canada is also building a cold weather military training center in Resolute Bay.
Harper's goal, quite simply, is to lay claim to large sections of the Arctic. "In our view," he said, "the first principle of Arctic sovereignty is: Use it or lose it." This attitude has led Canada to engage in a dispute with Denmark over Hans, an island that may be connected to the North Pole by an underwater ridge. Canada is also at odds with Russia over several maritime zones, and it is even arguing with the United States over the Northwest Passage, which might soon be navigable as Arctic ice melts.
Trouble Brewing in the East?
Despite the fact that the ministers who met last week in Greenland ultimately agreed to settle future disputes over the North Pole peacefully and under UN auspices, experts like Scott Borgerson, a member of the US Council on Foreign Relations and a former officer in the US Coast Guard, predict that the region "could erupt in an armed mad dash for its resources." The situation could become especially volatile in the Pacific, pitting China, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam against one another.
Why, for example, is Japan going so far out of its way to protect the fragile coral reef of Okinotori, Japan's southernmost island? The answer isn't difficult to find. The tiny bit of land between Taiwan and Guam consists of two tiny elevations that could soon disappear as a result of climate change—and Tokyo is claiming a nautical zone of 400,000 square kilometers (154,000 square miles) around this islet—an area larger than Japan itself.
Beijing has protested that Okinotori should not even be classified as an island under international law. But, Japan has continued nurturing the reef to stop erosion of the strategically important specks of land.
As bizarre as the details of this Chinese-Japanese spat may seem, the real issues are natural resources—especially natural gas—as well as military control over the waters surrounding Taiwan. Moreover, in the South China Sea, a dispute that has been going on for decades has resurfaced. Beijing has been involved in a long-standing dispute with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia over the Spratly and Paracel islands, which lie in another area believed to hold reserves of oil and gas.
Chinese patriots agitating on the Internet claim that dominance of the seas is critical to the development of a nation in the 21st century. According to them, "there will be definitely be a war involving China, Japan, Vietnam and others."
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan