There’s a great deal of activity in the warming Arctic. As satellite measurements show the ice cap retreating at record rates, Canada and four other Arctic Ocean coastal states have agreed to seek a deal to regulate commercial fishing in the ocean’s international zone. The deal would join existing protocols on search and rescue and responding to oil spills, a welcome demonstration of the awareness of the need to impose rules upon the economic development under way.
The diplomatic flurry underscores how the motor of development in the Arctic is revving up. But the implications of more energy exploration, industrial fishing and shipping in the Far North worry many who are living in the circumpolar region, as well as outsiders who are increasingly alarmed about the global impact of changes to the Arctic ecosystem.
In this issue, we examine some of those other national visions of the Arctic and provide a sense of how the region looks from Moscow and Beijing, from continental Europe and East Asia. The question is made more pressing by the push from several countries with nontraditional Arctic interests that want to join international forums such as the Arctic Council and assert jurisdiction over the top of the world.
The public record is filled with these nations’ professions of concern for the region’s environmental fate, but the test is in their actions. China’s benign language of international cooperation must be measured against the development deals being struck or sought with Russia, Iceland and Greenland. Japan is interested in Arctic science but, like South Korea, it is heavily dependent on imported energy, while its fishing fleets are accustomed to travelling thousands of miles to sate the nation’s appetite for fish.
Concerns about what happens next in the Arctic are well-founded. The changes to the polar cap have environmental implications for the rest of the world, and coastal countries like Canada must shoulder — and share — that wider responsibility. In April, activists from Greenpeace went to the North Pole to plant a “flag for the future” under the ice. The move was not just a symbolic rejoinder to the 2007 Russian polar expedition that provocatively placed a national flag on the seabed. It was an important declaration that the rest of the world also has a stake in what happens there.