With the Arctic Council celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Russian and foreign pundits met in Moscow to mull over the new challenges and opportunities of the Arctic region.

A security guard of the Russian Arctic National Park on Camp Island. Photo: RIA Novosti

With increasing turbulence in the world and growing confrontation between the West and Russia, the Arctic remains a safe haven and a potential platform for cooperation. This was the key takeaway of the conference “International Cooperation in the Arctic: New Challenges and Vectors of Development,” organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in central Moscow on Oct. 12-13.

The event marks the 20th anniversary of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments with stakes in the region. At the same time, the conference highlighted Russia’s concerns over the future of the Arctic and the nation’s reinvigorated interest in the region. Earlier this fall, the same agenda brought together researchers, university representatives, business leaders and diplomats in St. Petersburg, at the first-ever Congress of the University of the Arctic.

As the participants of RIAC’s conference reiterated, the Arctic is a good example of effective cooperation between different stakeholders. Most importantly, this cooperation has not been affected by confrontation: It brings together even the most ardent geopolitical opponents, such as the U.S. and Russia.

However, the challenge is to maintain this cooperation between Moscow and Washington on the same level and prevent the situation from spinning out of control, given the fact that the Kremlin and the White House continue to stir up the rhetoric. It is important “to insulate the Arctic” from global politics and, specifically, the current problems between Russia and the U.S., said Paul Berkman, professor at Tufts University.

Cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in the Bering Strait and the Arctic should be separated from other agendas and depoliticized, agrees Pavel Gudev, senior research fellow at the Primakov Institute of the World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO).

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What happens in this region has serious implications. Located between Russia and the U.S. in the Pacific, the Bering Strait has borders with the Arctic to the north. It may become a key transit point, with the number of shipping and fishing vessels significantly increasing, according to Andrei Zagorski, an expert from IMEMO’s Center for International Security.

In the case of emergency, be it an oil spill, vessel crash or other incidents affecting the environment, the consequences will be much graver for Russia and the U.S. and they will have to deal with it both politically and financially. This is one of the reasons why they should cooperate and work together on legal regulations and rules of how to govern the Arctic and make the sea routes to it more secure.

In short, it is a matter of joint responsibility to respond to probable risks and emergencies that might happen in the Bering Strait, according to Berkman.    

However, the problem is that there are no certain and coherent legal commitments: Russia and the U.S. can deal with the Arctic and the Bering Strait both unilaterally and bilaterally in terms of regulations, said Andrew Hartsig, director of the Arctic Program at the Ocean Conservancy.

Alexander Vylegzhanin, director of International Law at the Moscow Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), echoes this view. “It would be better to come up with regulative measures now, before vessel navigation increases [in the Bering Strait],” he said. “Afterwards, it might be too late.”

Likewise, Henry Huntington, senior officer of the International Arctic Program at the Pew Charitable Trust, calls on Moscow and Washington to engage in closer cooperation to reduce uncertainty in the Bering Strait. According to him, the strait is no longer “largely domestic traffic between Russia and the U.S.”. It has now become a matter of the global agenda, involving more stakeholders. And it is necessary to recognize it and respond to the challenge “in advance” by reinvigorating diplomacy and cooperation, he said.

Involving non-Arctic countries and international organizations in this regard becomes vitally important.

The role of new stakeholders in the Arctic

The Arctic Council consists of eight members, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. However, it also includes 12 observers or non-Arctic states, including China, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and seven European countries. It indicates that they could wish to play a greater role in regulating the Artic region either due to their economic or political clout or because of their business interests in the region.

Singapore’s Ambassador to Russia, Kheng Hua Lim, said during the RIAC conference that the Arctic is a new and important “frontier” and Singapore seeks to increase its stakes in the region, given its developed shipbuilding industry and high technological potential for offshore and marine system monitoring.

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Likewise, Japan can help Russia and other Arctic country members to explore the Arctic by providing technologies and investment in oil and gas drilling in the Arctic, said Dmitri Streltsov, an expert from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University). After all, Tokyo is interested in diversifying its energy resources, which the Arctic can provide, and finding new – more secure and shorter – transportation routes like the North Sea Route that are becoming available now that the Arctic ice caps are melting. It is a matter of stability and security for Japan in the long-term, because its Southern route, which provides energy resources from the Middle East and goes through Central Asia, is turbulent and doesn’t guarantee sustainable oil and gas supply over a longer perspective. 

Meanwhile, China sees the Arctic as a region that is rich with natural resources — primarily oil and gas. Given its hunger for energy, the Arctic becomes relevant for Beijing. Moreover, it is concerned with the implications of climate change, which is accelerating the melting of the Arctic ice caps.

China can provide intellectual resources and expertise to foster environmental protection in the Arctic because it sees itself as a responsible global stakeholder, according to Huang Ding, director of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Wuhan University. He argues that the challenges in the Arctic are global in their nature, not regional. That’s why, to quote him, “China has the right and, of course, responsibility” to be involved in this region.

At the same time, Vladimir Remyga, director general of the Silk Road Economic Belt Coordination Center, argues that the Arctic could play for China the same role as it does for Japan and be a more secure route, the Northern version of the Silk Road Economic Belt, because there are a lot of hotspots throughout this route, which goes through Central Asia and the Middle East. This creates a great deal of uncertainty. However, the challenge for creating the Arctic version of the Silk Road is almost prohibitively expensive and requires a lot of investment. 

David Benton, commissioner at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, argues that new players in the Arctic such as China, Japan, South Korea, and to a lesser degree the European Union, are pursuing “very practical” goals and seeking “opportunities for economic development.”

“I think this is the major factor in their endeavors in getting involved in the Arctic,” he told Russia Direct. “They just want to see themselves as part of the international community in a very positive way. For example, you see China, Japan and South Korea are putting a significant amount of money into scientific programs — building icebreaking research vessels, working on cooperative programs for different Arctic countries. There is emphasis on science right now and this is a really positive thing.”