In the Arctic, an area of the planet experiencing rapid environmental change, there is increasing justification for international collaboration. We provide a primer.
The Arctic States get the most attention when it comes to international relations and activities in the Arctic region. They have jurisdiction over land areas and marine coastal zones, carry out the most science, and dominate diplomatic and military matters there. But the Arctic has never been solely of interest to those who are there. Going back to the 16th and 17th centuries, we find Dutch, English, Spanish, and French explorers heading to the Arctic in search of trade routes and other economic opportunities. Similar motivations and, as I detail below, increasingly new ones, continue to this day among a widening array of countries and their citizens.
For purposes of this discussion, the “Arctic States” are those that have territory north of the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. Together, they form the membership of the Arctic Council. The “non-Arctic States” are all the other countries, plus the European Union, that have an interest in the Arctic. Today, many of the latter countries are “observers” to the Council, and include many northern hemisphere Asian and European states with a variety of reasons for being active, and seeking influence, in the region.
In the Arctic, an area of the planet experiencing rapid environmental change, there is increasing justification for international collaboration, and countries outside of the Arctic are an integral part of that collaboration. Moreover, while non-Arctic States do not have the same level of influence in the region as the Arctic States do, they have a role in the Arctic’s governance and its future prosperity. The Arctic States and their local and Indigenous communities have much to gain in actively harnessing the economic power and scientific capabilities of external partners. Multilateral cooperation is increasing and is supported by the Arctic’s well-established governance structure.
Which States Govern the Arctic?
The Arctic is an area of relative geopolitical calm and limited conflict, in large part because the ownership of Arctic land territory is not in dispute. The United States owns Alaska, Russia owns Siberia, etc. We know where the borders are, and which laws apply. Rights in maritime zones are set pursuant to the Law of the Sea, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and even though the United States is not a party, it adheres to these rules as a matter of customary international law. Some maritime boundaries have yet to be delimited, such as in the Beaufort Sea, or ratified, such as the U.S.-Russian maritime boundary, but by and large adjacent Arctic States work out differences amicably. Even determination of rights to the Arctic Ocean’s extended continental shelf are being handled peacefully by following UNCLOS rules.
The point is that while non-Arctic States must, and generally do, adhere to Arctic State laws in vast areas of land territory and coastal jurisdictions, those non-Arctic States have a vital role in the legal architecture that governs areas beyond national jurisdiction. That is certainly the case regarding Arctic Ocean governance under UNCLOS, but also via their membership in a host of multilateral treaties and organizations of nearly universal membership, concerning issues like shipping, aviation, biodiversity protection, and climate change, as well as Arctic-specific treaties with fewer parties, such as the Svalbard Treaty. It does not diminish the roles and responsibilities of the Arctic States to admit that other states have an impact on institutions and policy developments affecting that region
This basic and perhaps not particularly controversial reality at times stands in contrast to occasional statements by Arctic States that assert their regional primacy. For example, during the Trump Administration, a State Department official in an on-the-record briefing said that “The eight Arctic states conduct governance of the Arctic region and we reject attempts by non-Arctic states to claim a role in this process.” It is understandable that Arctic States wish to take a leading role in the Arctic region, but this sort of statement is overbroad. There are any number of areas of the “process” of Arctic governance where non-Arctic states can and do play a part.
The Role of the Arctic Council
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as a high-level forum focusing on sustainable development and environmental protection, but explicitly not issues related to military security. The eight Arctic States are members, and they meet along with major Indigenous groups, known as the Permanent Participants. The Council carries out most of its work through the Senior Arctic Officials (one per Arctic State) and a series of standing working groups. Decisions are taken by consensus of the states.
The Council is the main diplomatic forum for discussion of Arctic issues and has become the key venue for participating in the international relations of the Arctic. As a result, a number of non-Arctic Nations have sought observer status in the Council, which allows for a certain degree of participation in a variety of settings, from working group meetings to gatherings of Senior Arctic Officials and ministers. There are currently 13 state observers: China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. It is a testament to the growing importance of the Council that additional states, such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, and Turkey, are interested in becoming observers. In addition, the European Union sought observer status, which was blocked by Russia. (A compromise was reached by which the EU “observes” Council meetings, but isn’t considered an observer per se.) The current observers take considerable effort to retain their status when they are up for renewal every four years.
Despite attaining observer status, these countries do not always find it easy to work within the Arctic Council. At Council meetings the Arctic States give priority to working among themselves and with the Permanent Participants. Nevertheless, the non-Arctic State delegations find participation valuable. The Council is where the most knowledgeable people in Arctic diplomacy gather, and it is an essential place for gathering information on government policies and negotiating positions.
Interests of Non-Arctic States in the Arctic
Non-Arctic States have a long-term interest in the Arctic, evidenced by numerous pronouncements and formal written policies that take a fair amount of bureaucratic energy to produce. We’ve seen rising investments in polar science, including in research, logistics, infrastructure, and economic pursuits, especially shipping. Diplomats and others attend Arctic Council sessions and many other conferences and events that cater to the interests of the panoply of Arctic stakeholders. The latter includes former Icelandic President Grimsson’s Arctic Circle Assemblies, and Norway’s Arctic Frontiers and Finland’s Arctic Spirit conferences. These fora are particularly attractive for non-Arctic States that find it difficult to participate fully within the confines of the Arctic Council.
Although there are currently no commercial fisheries in the Arctic’s high seas, that is likely to change.
The non-Arctic States explain their interests in the Arctic in similar ways, with variations considering their strengths and histories. Some states, like the UK, France, and the Netherlands, have a long history of contact with the Arctic, including exploration. Although they do not have territory there, they have had long standing interactions with the region. All non-Arctic States are interested in current or future economic benefits arising from an increasingly accessible Arctic. Shipping, tourism, energy, and future fisheries are all important areas. They and their scientists want to be part of the cutting-edge scientific research done in the region, especially as this relates to climate change. They may also want to influence regional environmental policies, to increase levels of environmental protection or consider impacts of Arctic environmental change affecting their territories.
Many Non-Arctic Nations have foreign relations and security motivations. Thus, they want to monitor and understand developments in Arctic geopolitics, especially in the context of strategic competition among the United States, Russia, and China. They may also have interests flowing from the Arctic’s geostrategic location pertaining to aerospace defense.
Some Non-Arctic States also engage in competition with rivals: Various Non-Arctic States are keen to maintain their positions vis-à-vis their own regional competitors. Hence China, Japan, and South Korea all focus on matching each other in Arctic science and diplomatic initiatives. Greece carefully weighs the steps in the Arctic taken by Turkey, and visa-versa. The EU and European States who are not Arctic Council members have similar motivations.
Different strengths, objectives, and histories are emphasized as governments outside of Arctic territories substantiate their Arctic interests. For example, a key goal expressed by the UK in its latest policy document is “protecting global influence,” and the UK says that it sees the Arctic region as a pivotal part of its influence in world affairs, and a key element of its post-Brexit “Global Britain” initiatives. The EU recently issued a communique declaring that many Arctic challenges extend beyond national borders and the region’s boundaries, and can be more effectively addressed through regional or multilateral cooperation. It also issued a call for oil, gas, and coal to stay in the ground, “including in the Arctic.” This position is consistent with EU climate policies, yet not entirely welcome advice for constituencies in some non-EU Arctic States.
Japan, South Korea, and Singapore all note their interest in shipping and building ice-strengthened ships. Singapore is naturally focused not just on Arctic shipping, but how global sea routes may evolve as ice recedes in the North. Japan and South Korea point to their leadership in science and technology. Germany’s Arctic Guidelines reflect concerns about maintaining freedom of navigation and promoting Law of the Sea.
All non-Arctic States speak of their desire to cooperate with the eight Arctic States and to accept their sovereignty. They likely understand that any hint of interference with Arctic State control or governance within their territories would be antagonistic. There is also a general understanding that if they want to be accepted in the Arctic, they need to reach out to Indigenous peoples. Thus, their formal Arctic policies usually indicate that they intend to build those relationships.
Ingratiating statements and promises about sovereignty aside, some states nevertheless harbor political and geostrategic goals in the Arctic. China has described itself as a “near-Arctic State,” has invested significantly in Arctic science activities and has shown strong interest in economic opportunities, including a “polar silk road” building on its Belt and Road Initiative. In 2021, it again sent its navy to conduct operations near Alaska, something entirely legal, but in context suggests it wishes to remind the United States and others that its interests as a rising maritime power extend to the Arctic sphere. Its investments in Antarctic exploration and icebreaker support demonstrate a long-term vision and commitment for activities at both poles.
Although there are currently no commercial fisheries in the Arctic’s high seas, that is likely to change. The 2018 Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, whereby major fishing nations proactively agreed to hold off on fishing and cooperate in research to determine if and when a fisheries management regime may be needed, was a seminal achievement in Arctic cooperation and environmental stewardship, and a major breakthrough for non-Arctic States. The ten parties to the agreement, which entered into force in 2021, include China, Japan, South Korea, and the EU. For the first time, non-Arctic States were accepted as part of an Arctic regional instrument. Their participation was necessary as a practical matter because all the countries that might consider authorizing fishing fleets there had to be included for the agreement to fulfill its purpose. But the non-Arctic States also understood that this agreement was a major first step in having their overall role in the Arctic formally recognized.
Science is the key common denominator for Arctic cooperation, and an essential aspect of non-Arctic State connection to the Arctic. Key elements of climate-related science can only be undertaken in the Arctic, and with the international community focused on the perils posed by climate change and the need to implement the Paris Agreement, there is a strong desire in the international science community to undertake Arctic research. Indeed, Arctic science has always been an international endeavor, and scientists from outside of the Arctic have been part of numerous multilateral collaborations over the long-term. We saw that with the groundbreaking MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) expedition in 2019, in which a German icebreaker lodged itself in the ice for a full year to measure effects of climate change. MOSAiC ‘s research team comprised 37 nationalities, involving 80 institutes from 20 countries. The International Arctic Science Committee, which facilitates cooperation in Arctic research and fosters greater scientific understanding of the Arctic region, involves 23 countries. The international science hub at Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard includes facilities run by science institutes from, inter alia, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, Japan, India, and the UK.
Non-Arctic States support their researchers through world class science institutions with a major Arctic focus. These include the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Korea Polar Research Institute, Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research, and the British Antarctic Survey, which rival – and in some cases exceed – the science capabilities of Arctic State science institutions. When the Arctic States were negotiating the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, the non-Arctic States sent delegates to the negotiations to ensure inclusion of provisions that would help, or at least not undermine, their scientists’ participation in projects facilitated under the agreement. In these, and so many other ways, the non-Arctic States have made clear that they want, and intend to be, major players in polar science.
Arctic States’ Attitudes Toward Other States
Arctic States sometimes talk as if they are the beginning and end of Arctic governance. But when they consider the matter more deeply, they generally come to understand that inclusion of non-Arctic States adds value for the region.
One context in which that is certainly the case involves issues where Arctic States do not have the capacity to dictate solutions. The five Arctic States surrounding the Arctic Ocean do not have legal rights in marine areas (other than continental shelf) beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones, so the non-Arctic States must be involved in any rules related to the high seas areas. A similar situation applies to many transboundary environmental challenges. Thus, China and other Central Asian countries would need to be part of any solution aimed at reducing black carbon being deposited in the Arctic. And dealing with plastic and other pollution reaching the Arctic involves combatting flows originating in many cases outside the Arctic, and from vessels in the Arctic operated by non-Arctic countries.
Arctic States seek international investment for many projects, including in local communities where economic development has lagged. Energy and mineral resource projects often involve international financing, technology, or other collaborations. The Russian Government seeks customers for its Northern Sea Route, which can lead to collection of fees and keep its icebreaker fleet employed. Arctic tourism benefits from those coming to the region from elsewhere.
As the region becomes more accessible, scientific, economic, and political interests of non-Arctic States will grow as will their investment of time and resources.
Economic investment is normally welcomed, but can raise political concerns if the effect could shift control over resources to foreign governments or entities. The United States, for example, has expressed concern that Chinese investment throughout the Arctic may promote policies that lead to unsustainable debt or shifting ownership of critical infrastructure without adequate national security review. The Russian Government has said it wants to cooperate with China on polar shipping, and Putin and Xi recently pledged to work together on Arctic matters, but Russia is also quite protective of its status in the Arctic and likely would be cautious about a rise in Chinese influence.
Military cooperation in the Arctic normally follows the contours of existing alliances, such as U.S. and Canadian cooperation with other NATO members. Cooperation among Arctic Coast Guards has at times extended beyond Arctic States on matters such as search and rescue and pollution response preparedness.
Just as non-Arctic States seek to undertake Arctic science, Arctic State science institutions and universities generally seek to collaborate with scientists regardless of nationality, although funding agencies may give preference in funding to their own nationals. The Arctic Council actively seeks participation of non-Arctic State experts in its working groups. Thus, access to science projects remains one of the main interests of the Arctic States: to channel the capabilities of the world science community.
Key Trends in the Non-Arctic State Involvement
These developments reveal key trends, most notably that the interests of non-Arctic States in the Arctic are increasing and will persist. As the region becomes more accessible, scientific, economic, and political interests of non-Arctic States will grow as will their investment of time and resources. Scientific cooperation will remain the most promising avenue for non-Arctic State connections to the Arctic. Active science programs provide the best and least controversial means for all states to gain influence and stature in the Arctic, regardless of their political motivations.
Non-Arctic States are compelled to be more involved in the Arctic than ever before.
Non-Arctic States and the EU will continue to seek a greater role in Arctic diplomacy. The Arctic Council can improve its transparency and the meaningfulness of observer participation there, but its members and the Permanent Participants will balk at sharing policy making responsibilities in that forum. As a result, non-Arctic States will look to participate in other fora where they can function as equals.
At least some non-Arctic States will seek a more active profile on Arctic military security issues, perhaps in conjunction with allied Arctic States. Regional security leadership will remain, however, largely the province of the Arctic States.
Companies in non-Arctic States, already awakened to growing opportunities for trade, markets, and shipping routes, will increase their Arctic planning and investments, creating, inter alia, needed opportunities for local and indigenous communities. Major fishing nations will remain on track to open the high seas area of the Arctic to exploitation of marine living resources, based on agreed procedures, if science indicates that a sustainable fishery is viable.
What these trends clearly convey is that, whether because of an active national security interest, a desire to gain influence in an emerging global space, or simply not wanting to be left out, non-Arctic States are compelled to be more involved in the Arctic than ever before. They are making strong connections to national interests and assets, and are extending well-planned strategies into the Arctic, connecting climate interests, globalization, and more, to declare their intention to engage in the Arctic in the long-term.
Arctic affairs as a whole need to evolve, finding a way to engage the energy, creativity, and resources of the world community to tackle the many challenges that confront the region. How that happens isn’t solely the concern of states with Arctic territory. Solutions will be found in a globalized approach, as well as in the domestic policies of the Arctic States. The opportunity for scientific collaboration is the easiest to accommodate. Incorporating economic investment, at least where consistent with domestic development and national security priorities, also has great potential. Managing cooperation on geopolitical and notably military security issues is a less straightforward undertaking and may depend on the particular issues or countries involved. Taken as a whole, the rise of non-Arctic States should be seen by the Arctic States as a positive trend worthy of their support.
Evan T. Bloom is a Senior Fellow with the Wilson Center's Polar Institute. He is a lawyer and former career diplomat at the U.S. Department of State where he focused on Arctic policy matters as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Fisheries and Director of the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs.
Cover photo: Melting glacier ice in the South of Greenland. Photo by Kenneth Høegh.