A new cold war: Denmark gets aggressive, stakes huge claim in Race for the Arctic
by Tristin Hopper
December 15, 2014
For years, the Race for the Arctic had promised to be one of the most gentlemanly land grabs in history: Using only science and a whiff of diplomacy, the oil-rich Arctic Ocean could be peacefully divvied up between Russia, Canada, the United States and Europe.
That is, until the tiny nation of Denmark approached the United Nations on Monday with a staggering claim to nearly one third of the total prize — including the North Pole.
“It is ironic that the only country that right now could be said to be acting provocatively in the Arctic is Denmark,” said Michael Byers, the Vancouver-based author of Who Owns the Arctic? speaking to Danish media on Monday.
Canada has not yet wrapped up its final claim to areas of the Arctic Ocean now considered international waters, although it is rumoured that Ottawa’s submission will include 1.7 million square kilometres of ocean, including the North Pole. There is no definitive scientific evidence that Canada has any claim to the North Pole, but that did not stop Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander from issuing Santa Claus with Canadian citizenship last year.
On Monday, Rob Huebert at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies called Denmark’s claim evidence that it was wrong to ever believe that the Arctic could be divvied up simply with geological data.
“I think we got sold a bill of goods,” he said. “I don’t think the Russians or the Danes, once it came up to the political leadership, ever really intended to do that.”
In its official filing to the UN’s Commission on the Limits and the Continental Shelf the Kingdom of Denmark officially laid claim to an 895,000 square kilometer chunk of the Arctic Ocean.
Bolstered by $64-million in Arctic scientific research (some of which was carried out jointly with Canada), the Danish claim hinges on the assertion that that the Lomonosov Ridge, a massive underwater mountain range, is an extension of Greenland.
Not only does the Danish claim push right to edge of Russia’s existing Arctic boundaries, but it includes thousands of hectares of resource-rich seafloor previously claimed by Moscow.
Recent estimates put Arctic undersea oil reserves at 13 per cent of the global total of undiscovered oil, and natural gas at 30 per cent of the total.
“It doesn’t exercise self-restraint … a lot of people are surprised they went for the whole enchilada,” said Mr. Byers, speaking from a hotel room in Novosibirsk, Russia, where he is appearing for a book launch.
While Denmark’s science is technically correct, Mr. Byers said he expects that Moscow will react by filing an equally massive claim.
“Everyone’s going for everything they can at this stage,” he said, adding that Denmark’s no-holds-barred claim is merely posturing for future negotiations with the four other Arctic powers: Canada, Russia, Norway and the United States.
When that occurs in about 15-20 years, said Mr. Byers, Canada will likely end up with as much as half of the Danish claim.
“This process will take a lot of time and patience, one of my colleagues called it a ‘ping pong game,’” said Joël Plouffe, a fellow at the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute.
With the Danish general election only a few months away, the gargantuan claim has garnered wide political support in Denmark.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard called it a “historic and important milestone,” and boasted in an interview that expanding their kingdom to the North Pole would boost the country’s “voice in the world.”
Following Russian-sponsored incursions into Ukraine, Denmark has seen a dramatic increase in Russian military patrols over the Baltic Sea in recent months, leading to a near-collision last week between a Russian jet and a Copenhagen airliner.
Johannes Nordby, an analyst with the Royal Danish Defence College, said he expects Russia’s saber-rattling to increase even further in a drive to “put pressure on Denmark” over the Arctic issue.
“I think you’re going to see some kind of overt military movements [from Russia] … I would not be surprised by that,” he said.
Nevertheless, Seva Gunitsky, a Russian-born political scientist at the University of Toronto, said the government of Vladimir Putin is likely going to follow the rules in its Arctic policy dealings — at least for the anticipated future.
“Russia has little to gain materially from pursuing its Arctic claims too aggressively at this point, unless the Putin government thinks they can use the conflict to bolster domestic support,” he wrote in an email to the National Post.
CORRECTION: An initial draft of this story claimed that Ottawa had “vowed” to file a 1.2 million square kilometre claim in the Arctic. The 1.2 million figure actually refers to a separate Atlantic Ocean seabed claim.