UNCLOS: How We’re Missing Out on Arctic Opportunity
The Arctic used to be oceans apart from international concern. Not anymore. Global warming has rushed in a new era of discovery and competition not seen since the 1800’s. The Arctic’s melting icecaps and never before navigable sea lanes have law professors all over the world dusting off an international legal principle known as the Doctrine of Discovery.
There’s nothing that can stir competition in the hearts of mankind like exploration and the riches it promises. As early as the 1980’s, Denmark and Canada began sending diplomats and military vessels to plant flags on islands that until now have been of little strategic importance. In 1984, Denmark’s Minister for Greenland Affairs landed on a territorially disputed island and raised the Danish flag, buried a bottle of brandy, and left a note that boldly stated: “Welcome to the Danish Island.”
Russia, Canada, and Denmark have already made claims on waters stretching to the North Pole. Disputes have even arisen between the U.S. and Canada over an emerging Northwest Sea Passage. The U.S. has argued that the potential sea route is neutral territory, but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened to place military icebreakers in the area to “assert sovereignty and take action to protect [Canada’s] territorial integrity.” Yes, even our polite neighbors to the North get a little confident when it comes to claiming new territory.
Despite this competition to our North, the U.S. is the only Arctic State that is not a party to the U.N Convention on the Law of the Sea – a well-established international treaty designed to codify navigational rights, protect domestic economic development from foreign harassment, and referee territorial claims among nations. Our domestic industries view U.S. accession to the Convention as an opportunity to mine seabed mineral resources, tap oil and gas fields, and lay fiber optic cables with international legal protection. The Pentagon, and particularly the U.S. Coast Guard, also views accession to the Convention as an opportunity, but as an opportunity to address critical issues of national security, sovereign rights, and environmental protections in the increasingly wet Arctic Ocean. In fact, the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Robert Papp, recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that U.S. accession to the Convention is needed to ensure “America’s Arctic future.”
If there’s one thing that business leaders and military planners hate alike, it is being at a competitive disadvantage for no reason. Until the U.S. accedes to the Convention, it cannot have the true boundaries of its expansive continental shelf internationally recognized by the Convention’s Continental Shelf Commission. Recognition on the extent of its continental shelf would allow the U.S. to claim exclusive rights to natural resources on and beneath the Arctic seabed out to 600 miles from the Alaska coast, which is well beyond the 200 mile exclusive economic zone that is customarily given to nations.
Right now, other Arctic nations are gaining the competitive advantage by filing extended continental shelf submissions with the Continental Shelf Commission to perfect their territorial claims. The sooner their territorial claims are recognized, the sooner their domestic industries will begin to develop natural resources and create jobs.
As frustrated as our domestic industries are with U.S. political complacency towards the Convention, the Coast Guard is also feeling the burden of a weakened U.S. negotiating position on other Arctic agreements. The Coast Guard has robust statutory authority to police the Arctic and will be America’s first responder to environmental emergencies. The Convention is already serving as the “umbrella” for other discussions among Arctic nations on oil pollution preparedness and a maritime search and rescue agreement. Admiral Papp testified that the U.S. negotiating position on these agreements would be much stronger if the U.S. was a party to the Convention.
The U.S. will not have the luxury of complacency when it comes to the competition in the Arctic. All that our domestic industries are asking for is the protection the Convention provides before they will invest the billions of dollars necessary to develop America’s natural resources and create jobs. All the Coast Guard is asking for is a better opportunity to prepare itself for the challenges and dangerous situations it will inevitably face as America’s Arctic responders.
The melting Arctic ice demonstrates how quickly the world is changing, and how quickly the U.S. needs to solidify its rights under the Convention in order to become a competitive Arctic nation.
Douglas L. Peters is a Truman Veterans Leadership Academy Graduate.