Serious division of the Arctic begins

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - On May 27-29 Denmark plays host to its main Arctic neighbors at the Arctic Ocean Conference held in the small town of Illulissat in Greenland. In addition to the hosts (Denmark/Greenland), it will be attended by the foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, Canada and Norway.

The declared theme of the meeting is "strengthening cooperation among Arctic states in managing the Arctic Ocean." The Danes hope that the conference will adopt a "political declaration... on the main problems of the future orientation and management of the ocean."

In reality, before strengthening cooperation we need to legally define the interests of the Arctic Ocean states. The ministerial meeting in Illulissat is the first serious step in this direction. Leaving diplomatic niceties aside, it will be about dividing up the Arctic, or rather, the continental shelf.

There is a consensus that the time has come to legitimize the interests of the Arctic countries. However, so far the approach to division, its legal principles and even whether the Arctic should belong to the Arctic countries or to the world in general are questions that have yet to be answered. Antarctica on the opposite end of the globe is regulated by international treaties. But the Arctic is still a "no man's land," pieces of which tend to be grabbed from time to time.

It is clear from the composition of the Illulissat meeting that the ministers will not come up with any earth-shattering decisions. The chosen participants raised eyebrows even before the meeting because the Danes failed to invite Iceland, Sweden and Finland. And yet these countries, along with the participants, are members of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization set up with the express purpose of discussing the problems of the Northern region.

Faced with complaints from those who have been left out, Denmark promised that all the other council members would receive detailed reports on the results of the Greenland meeting. "We have been assured," said Urdur Gunnarsdottir, a spokesman for the Icelandic Foreign Ministry, "that it would be a one-time meeting and not an attempt to create an alternative to the Arctic Council."

The "five" would hardly be able to create such an alternative (without causing a row), especially if one considers that the Arctic Council is becoming more and more popular as the ice melts revealing untold natural riches. Already its observers include Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Britain, Poland and Spain. China joined the council as an observer late last year. Now it will send its only icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, to "explore" the icy waters every year.

The Arctic "five," of course, cannot seize the entire region, but they can develop the general rules that all the other members of the "Arctic club" will have to follow. Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway have claimed as their sovereign right everything that is on, over, in and under the Arctic Ocean.

But the gaps between their visions of how to divide it are as wide as the difference between the tip of the iceberg and its real size. The status of the continental shelf is regulated by the 1958 Continental Shelf Conventions (without limits) and by the UN Law of the Sea Convention ("the marine constitution of the world") of 1982 (200-350 nautical miles from the territorial waters or a hundred miles from the depth of 2,500 meters).

The Canadians have always favored (and Russia supported them until 2001) "the sectoral principle" that would draw borders from the tips of the national territories straight along the meridians until the North Pole. In such a set-up, the Arctic would be divided into very unequal parts like the tip of a water melon: Russia would get the biggest slice (about 5.8 million square kilometers), followed by Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway and finally the United States.

Obviously, such an approach does not suit Washington. The Americans have not even ratified the 1982 Convention, and therefore can happily ignore all its limitations. They demand a territory stretching 600 nautical miles from Alaska to the Pole. The tip of the Earth would remain a no man's land of about 3 million square kilometers where everyone would be allowed to fish and mine.

The Danes have their own, and strangest, approach of all. Copenhagen wants Arctic borders to run at an equal distance from the coasts of the claimant countries. Because Greenland is closest to the Pole it would have the Pole under the Danish plan. Denmark would get a slice almost as big as Canada's, and Russia would lose about 1.8 million square kilometers. The European Union backs Denmark because it would like to get an Arctic section with Denmark's help.

Until 2001, Russia adhered to the "sectoral principle," but after it ratified the 1982 Convention in 1997, it agreed to its restrictions. A state can claim either 350 miles of the continental shelf, or 100 miles beyond the depth of 2,500 meters. Russia has opted for the latter variant, and is now trying to prove that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge is the continuation of the Siberian continental plate and that Russia is entitled to it.

If we prove this, the North Pole will be Russia's. But proving this will be a lot harder than conquering the North Pole.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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