May 11, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Arctic Circle: Competition at the Top of the World


As of mid-May 2012, with the diminishing of the technological and environmental challenges long obvious in any serious plans of both exploiting the vast natural resources assessed to be within the Arctic Circle and greatly expanding vessel traffic in the Arctic Northern Sea Route, the risk of international tensions among resource-and-influence seeking nations is rising, in particular, between the United States, Russia, and China. All three countries are making concerted efforts to best position themselves as resources and shipping lanes — previously inaccessible — become increasingly available.


Competition and Tensions Rise

How the United States prepares for either expanding or defending its current and future claims on Arctic resources will be complicated by not only the intentions and actions of other nations seeking the same benefits, but also from internal pressures such as limitations resulting from current budget realities, significant environmental issues, and the collaborative —or conflicting — abilities of the multiple agencies that will have to be involved. Nonetheless, the potential gains were made clear in a recent report by the U.S Geological Survey that estimated the Arctic region holds an estimated 90 billion barrels of the world's undiscovered oil resources and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas reserves.

With the announcement that China is now undertaking its most ambitious Arctic expedition to date (led by its new icebreaker, the Snow Dragon), the United States is now confronted with increased Arctic activities by two of its largest geopolitical rivals: Russia, with a long-established Arctic presence and capability; and China, aggressively seeking a foothold in the region through direct and indirect means. The U.S, which also has maintained a well-established and long-standing presence in the region, is considering how to counter these competitors in an area of arguably vital importance. An inescapable reality in the push northward is that the potential for tension is as great in the Arctic circle as it is in the crowded sea lanes much further south. The fact that the Arctic is among the last undeveloped regions in terms of resources will become more attractive as current global stocks are depleted, leading nations to make larger investments both commercially and militarily in the region.


Uncommon Intelligence Challenges

One of the issues confronting any nation — and especially the U.S. — seeking sustained economic, and possibly military, benefit from the Arctic resources is how to monitor the intentions and activities of the other active countries as it relates to the Arctic. While this challenge is consistent with all intelligence-driven issues, it is particularly difficult in the Arctic, where weather and geographical anomalies and patterns make technical monitoring problematic at best. This is a concern in that the U.S is already highly invested in remote detection devices, such as drones and satellites, that might not provide clearly understandable readings due to extremes in the magnetic field, visual distortions through phenomenon such as the albedo effect, and shifting ice fields. Furthermore, winter weather makes full-time monitoring of large areas in the Arctic problematic at best. Additionally, were the above challenges in operating an effective full-time monitoring system surpassed, issues would still remain in training and housing the people needed to run such a system.

The necessity for accurate monitoring in the Arctic — both of one's own resources and activities as well as those of competing nations (and private corporations) — is growing as nations conduct more and more military training there. There is little navigable room for error among the armed naval vessels, and the shifting ice-scape means that boundaries will be frustratingly amorphous to countries seeking to defend current claims or explore new ones.


International Monitoring

Current treaties allow for countries to claim resources up to 200 miles from its borders, leaving a large portion of the Arctic in international limbo. International bodies such as the Arctic Council (comprised of the 8 Arctic-adjacent nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, the United States; and observer nations such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France, with China now asking for membership) were not designed to address the projected increased attention in the region, and other bodies such as NATO are not suitable replacements due to Russia's wariness of that group.

So what remains is a latter-day gold rush, but between armed nations increasingly determined to claim a part of the last undiscovered resource-rich regions in the world. Because of the technological challenges, as well as the international complexities concerning mineral rights, countries like China, Russia, and the United States will be forced to expend massive amounts of funding and time on overcoming these issues in a scalable manner, all while keeping a wary eye on one other.




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