The United States, Russia and Canada are among the governments limbering up for a “Great Game” in the Arctic. Boundary rights in the region are fuzzy, and potential benefits huge. Future conflicts over energy and other resources could turn nasty. An international effort to set firm rules is needed before it's too late.
Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, underlined American interest in the Arctic during a visit to Tromso in Norway on Saturday. Russia may reopen mothballed air bases, and Canada is considering boosting aerial surveillance. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic contains 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered conventional oil and 30 per cent of undiscovered gas reserves. Energy is valuable and technology is making it more accessible, even in inhospitable places. Moreover, the Arctic icecap has shrunk by 35 per cent from the average for 1979 to 2000, opening new shipping lanes and making drilling and mining more practicable.
Around a third of the Arctic Ocean lies within various countries' largely unchallenged 200-mile (322-kilometre) offshore zones, and most of the rest lies in international waters. But a substantial amount of territory is disputed because of ambiguity in defining the continental shelf, another accepted border concept. Moreover, the U.S. is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a key treaty.
Russia's plans to reopen Soviet-era bases and propose definitive Arctic borders for itself by the end of next year make it the most energetic in asserting its Arctic rights – even if other states are paying close attention. Russia could also take advantage of political divisions elsewhere. For example, environmental concerns about Arctic development carry weight in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia, but that's far less the case in Russia.
Somewhat like the original Great Game – the nineteenth century Anglo-Russian rivalry in Central Asia – major powers in the Arctic will be expanding their influence into an underdeveloped region. In addition to the UN, there's the Arctic Council available as a forum for circumpolar discussion. But however it's accomplished, the sooner borders and other guidelines are set by international agreement, the better.