On Arctic Governance: Successes and Lessons for the South China Sea

A 2005 headline for The Guardian reads: ‘The end of oil is closer than you think.’ A more recent example from the Christian Science Monitor reads: “How long will world’s oil reserves last? 53 years, says BP.” These sensational headlines are indicative of the global preoccupation with oil. From statistics that indicate that global oil production will decline at a rate of 2 to 3 percent a year to research estimating that known oil reserves will only last 40 to 50 more years, the international community has become acutely aware of – and increasingly concerned about – its limited gas reserves.

While much has been written about the impact of oil on the strategic importance of the Middle East, these concerns have also thrust the Arctic to the forefront of international affairs. Not only is the Arctic estimated to hold 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas, but its retreating ice caps also hold the potential to open a Northwest Passage that would effectively redirect global trade routes. Furthermore, the Arctic region maintains strategic importance as an optimal location for ballistic missile and missile defense facilities. For these reasons, Russia has already increased its Arctic presence, raising interesting issues of global competition and introducing additional strain on an already labored relationship between Russia and the rest of the world, particularly the United States. However, it is equally important to acknowledge the precedence of peaceful cooperation in the Arctic and take note of the direct efforts towards continuing this highly functional and positive balance of governance.

The Arctic has slowly emerged as a prominent region for geopolitical power plays. In fact, Russia has already begun investing in the Arctic by implementing public-private investment projects between 2008 and 2010 and planning to strategically develop its Arctic territories into resource bases between 2016 and 2020. Worryingly, Russia positioned four Arctic combat teams, 14 new airfields, 16 ports, and 40 icebreakers (as compared to America’s single functioning icebreaker) within its territories – a move that has alarmed many American and international officials.

Due to the increasing material incentives in the region and Russia’s growing presence, many analysts and journalists have focused on the Arctic’s potential for interstate disputes. These analyses have often neglected the possibility for cooperation and have rather argued that the Arctic is bound to create friction and possibly even military conflict. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the Arctic is, and most likely will continue to be, harmonically governed. In fact, according to Norwegian Admiral Haakon B. Hanssen, “the Arctic is probably the most stable area in the world, all countries play by the rules. Legal norms are well established.”

The peaceful state of the Arctic raises the question of how such a resource-rich region operates under relative comity. The Arctic Nations, differently from those involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, are surprisingly able to maintain political cooperation. It turns out that this peaceful regional governance is maintained largely through organizational arrangements of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council is a global forum that currently consists of eight nation-states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) and six indigenous groups (Aleut, Athabaskan, Gwich’in, Inuit, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Saami). The council first originated as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), an assembly formed by Finland in the 1980s to combat pollution affecting indigenous groups. The objectives of the AEPS almost only revolved around the cooperation of the eight Arctic states to address environmental issues. Soon thereafter, several nations, led by Canada, proposed to expand the responsibilities of the AEPS to include the supervision of economic development in the Arctic. The new forum would not only address environmental problems but also create a venue in which negotiations regarding structural and sustainable developments could occur. With the signing of the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council on September 19, 1996, the Arctic Council was formed and has been operating ever since.

The Arctic Council continues to oversee and enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – a treaty or so-called ‘constitution of the sea’ that provides guidelines on maritime borders, environmental and resource management, and coastal jurisdiction. The proper enforcement of UNCLOS has been crucial to the Arctic region since two of the Arctic Council nation-states, Canada and Russia, have the two longest national coastlines. The Arctic Council has facilitated harmonious discussions and ameliorated tensions for the past decade by decentralizing power, using science as a common language for addressing disputes and limiting council membership.

First, in order to prevent the centralization of power within the forum, the chair of the Arctic Council is rotated among the eight nation-states every two years. The chosen chair presides over dealings among the eight states and six indigenous organizations to generally reach fair grounds. The political structure of the council allows for an equitable distribution of power among the participants because every participant gets the opportunity to lead the council, which encourages countries to cooperate to the best of their abilities. Furthermore, because every participant feels that its interests and thoughts are being heard, the rise of tensions is less likely.

The Arctic Council has facilitated harmonious discussions and ameliorated tensions for the past decade by decentralizing power, using science as a common language for addressing disputes, and limiting council membership.

Second, the council was founded upon a common concern for the environment; the nations initially gathered under the AEPS to formulate scientific approaches to combat pollution in the Arctic region. From this common concern, the council continues to use science as a common language for tackling contentious matters. Robyn Sundlee, a Master’s Student in Public Policy at Brown University, adds that the level of scientific cooperation among the Arctic countries is surprisingly high. From sharing climate change data to holding regular international conferences among scientists in the Arctic, scientific collaboration is foundational to the operation of the council. In fact, the agencies within the council are filled with researchers and scientists from around the globe who share a similar concern for environmental preservation.

Furthermore, each member state is specialized in its own specific duties, encouraging constant cooperation. For example, while Russia may be developing its icebreaking program, it would also need the help of Norway for its highly advanced oil drills. The council’s heavy reliance on the world’s scientific community has often helped mitigate potential friction or antagonism. (Of course, the role science plays in international diplomacy may soon change as Trump’s administration stifles climate change research; whether the scientific community will continue to function as a common language in the Arctic region is uncertain).

Finally, the limited membership status of the council also allows for a more collaborative atmosphere: A smaller sized group makes it more difficult for nation-states to defy the will of the council. With the current composition of the forum, Russia, despite its increasing efforts to develop its Arctic territories, will not be able to evade the enforcements of the Arctic Council. After all, seven of the eight member states are part of NATO – it is not in Russia’s best interest to quarrel with the other nations since the balance of power within the council is simply not in its favor. Russia’s long-term political and financial interests within the region, deeply intertwined with those of the council, dissuade it from behaving aggressively.

The overall success and legitimacy of the Arctic Council has been empirically proven. Over the last decade, the council has presided over the passing of two treaties: the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the 2013 Agreement on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response. Agreement on these two treaties demonstrates that the Arctic Council has gained legal footing within the international community. The council has shifted from a mere forum for scientific research to a governing body with an administrative office. With the growing influence of the Arctic Council, non-member nations have even applied for observer status memberships, further reinforcing the council’s intergovernmental role within the region as well as its international legitimacy.

The success to date of the Arctic Council raises the question of whether such a model of governance could be applied to ameliorate other regional and territorial conflicts of a similar nature, such as those in the South China Sea. As the most recent dispute between China and the US over the unmanned underwater vehicle illustrates, the region is a hotspot for international diplomacy. Similar to the Arctic, the South China Sea is at the center of global interest due to its bountiful natural resources and economic potential. However, unlike the Arctic, which maintains diplomatic order, the South China Sea has often been described as a “powder keg.” Many scholars, including Edwige Cavan, a PhD Visiting Research Scholar at Brown University, argue that there may be certain things the South China Sea region may be able to learn from Arctic governance.

Although the establishment of a council that resembles the structures of the Arctic Council in the South China Sea may seem unrealistic, Cavan argues that it is necessary. Forming a council that would preside over negotiations and mandate equal participation from each member state is essential to maintain peace and order within the region. Just like how the Arctic Council started with the common goal of environmental protection, perhaps nations that encompass the South China Sea, such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, could begin cooperation through scientific research and environmental projects. From this, the coalition can follow the Arctic Council’s steps in creating a council with legal mandates and governing jurisdiction.

However, Robyn Sundlee raises several concerns and caveats regarding such an optimistic perspective. After all, there are significant differences between the Arctic and the South China Sea. Unlike the oil companies already profiting in the South China Sea, nobody in the Arctic has yet discovered how to exploit its resources. Furthermore, while the South China Sea region has a population of approximately 1.9 billion people, the Arctic only houses a community of 4 million. Due to such differences in circumstances, the parallels between the two regions may not be so straightforward.

Yet despite these caveats, Cavan contends that the Arctic Council is an appropriate political model for the South China Sea to strive for; the region is in serious need of diplomatic order that can only be realized by cooperative international governance. Though the parallels between the regions may not be clear-cut, a closer examination reveals significant similarities. Both regions are riddled with territorial disputes on a global scale, raise concerns on environmental preservation, and hold great potential for future development. In spite of these similarities, the Arctic has managed to function around a multilateral governing structure while the South China Sea continues to suffer from territorial conflicts, maritime and fishery disputes, and constant environmental degradation.

What the South China Sea needs is a governing structure that would have jurisdiction to enforce not only cooperation but also the UNCLOS treaty. The proper enforcement of UNCLOS through the ‘South China Sea Council’ would foster the promotion of diplomatic equity and the protection of natural resources that the region so desperately requires.


Author’s note: I would like to thank Robyn Sundlee and Edwige Cavan for their time and informative interviews.

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