Tag Archives: Territorial Claims

The Nine Ironies of the South China Sea Mess

This article by Dr. James Kraska was originally published at The Diplomat.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.

Since 2009, when China asked the secretary-general of the United Nations to circulate its nine-dashed line claim to the community of nations, the world has stood in bewilderment at Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have the most to lose over China’s gambit, and the disparity in power between them and China leaves them confounded and stunned – and privately, apoplectic. China’s policies have created a dangerous mess in the South China Sea. The irony is palpably bitter on nine distinct levels. Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines hold the key to the best chance to fix the mess.

The first irony is that during negotiations for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the developing states reluctantly ceded freedom of navigation through straits and in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for exclusive offshore resource rights. Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, were averse to free transit through the litany of straits that cut through their nations, such as the Strait of Malacca and Sunda Strait. They relented, however, because the benefits of the package deal, foremost of which included a 200 nm EEZ, overcame their hesitancy on free navigation. If you want to get something in maritime diplomacy – exclusive control over an area of ocean – you have to give something in return if the rest of the world is going to cede its rights.

China’s seizure of its neighbors’ EEZs shatters that bargain. The Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea that produced UNCLOS was convened after Ambassador Avid Pardo issued a clarion call in the UN General Assembly in 1967 to designate the riches of the seabed as the common heritage of all mankind as a source of

A Chinese Coast Guard Ship fires water cannons at a Vietnamese Vessel in 2014.
A Chinese Coast Guard Ship fires water cannons at a Vietnamese Vessel in 2014.

development for the world’s poorest nations. Similarly, since 90 percent of the world’s fisheries lie within 200 nm of shore, the EEZ was created to ensure food security for developing states. Today the maritime states of Southeast Asia, more reliant on the sea than most, face the real prospect of losing their rightful bounty, even as they accepted they navigational provisions.

Second, China was a leader among the developing states pushing for increased and secure offshore fishing and mineral rights for coastal states. Now a first order power, China takes it all back. It is as though the United States, Japan and Russia, who successfully bargained for liberal rules to protect freedom of navigation in exchange for recognizing the EEZ, agreed to give up the right to distant water fishing. Then decades after signing the treaty, the maritime powers began again sending industrial factory fishing vessels to scour the EEZs of the developing world.

The United States, which initially opposed creation of the EEZ and is not a party to UNCLOS, promotes and respects other countries’ EEZ rights; China, which championed the EEZ, is a party to UNCLOS and yet does not respect the EEZ rights of its neighbors.

Strategic Hegemony

Third, at its core, the dispute between China and its neighbors is not about China’s voracious appetite for resources, but rather about fortifying Beijing’s power and strategic hegemony in East Asia. The irony is that there are few resources to be had in the South China Sea. Only CNOOC, the Chinese state-controlled offshore oil company, suggests there are large reservoirs of oil and gas in the South China Sea. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in contrast, believes that although the South China Sea contains perhaps 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, those resources mostly reside in undisputed areas along the coastline outside of China’s nine-dashed line claim. Likewise, while the fisheries of the South China Sea once were rich, in recent years they have been grossly depleted. China operates the largest fishing fleet in the world, and is principally to blame. While the hydrocarbons and fishing resources are not enough to move the dial on the Chinese economy, they are critically important for the smaller populations and economies of Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei. The resource angle is a Chinese canard to mask a bold and strategic move.

Fourth, China serially insists on heartfelt and unique “interpretations” of international law to justify its South China Sea policy that lack any support outside China. We are told to abandon ethnocentric notions of international law and accommodate China’s outcome-based, albeit relatively recent way of thinking. Yet Beijing has demonstrated a sophisticated and patient adherence to the international law of land boundary disputes and signed fair and balanced treaties with 13 of 14 of its neighbors. It is as though there are two sets of Chinese Foreign Ministry lawyers – one informed by principles of international law and accepted norms, and another that appears incredulous to the most basic rules of the history, norms, and practices in the law of the sea. Chinese officials and scholars have been subject to an onslaught of tutorials and protests on maritime law by foreign lawyers and policy makers at countless official and Track II conferences and dialogues. The predictive pattern: The rest of the world argues until it is blue in the face, and Chinese representatives appear not to get it.

The only impediment to this theory, however, is that ironically China appears to actually understand the law of the sea when it is in its interest to do so. China has quietly reached amicable and even-handed agreements with both Vietnam and South Korea in the Gulf of Tonkin and Yellow Sea, respectively, to responsibly and equally divide fisheries and conduct joint enforcement patrols that reduce tension. Cooperation in these areas is strong and enduring, yet it attracts no media attention and elicits no question why China understands law of the sea norms in these areas, but utterly fails to grasp them in the South China Sea.

The fifth irony is that China has pocketed the rights it gained in UNCLOS, but had dodged its responsibilities. As a leader in offshore enclosure, China was a leader among a group of states from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, to expand the territorial sea from 3 nm to 12 nm and create the 200 nm EEZ. As a package deal, China and other state parties have a legal obligation to accept the obligations of the treaty along with the newly created rights. China has failed to observe its obligations to other states operating in its own territorial seas and EEZ. For example, China attaches conditions to the right of innocent passage in the territorial sea and freedom of navigation in the EEZ that not only are nowhere in UNCLOS, but were specifically rejected by the world community during the negotiations. Just as China fails to accept its obligations toward foreign ships and aircraft in its own EEZ, it has enjoyed the rights and freedoms of UNCLOS in other countries’ EEZs.

Dubious Claim

Sixth, even a sweepingly generous and sympathetic application of international law in favor of China’s claims fails to give Beijing anything more than a handful of tiny maritime zones in the region. Although China has declined to clarify the meaning of its nine-dash line

A depiction of China's "nine dashed line" claim
A depiction of China’s “nine dashed line” claim

and islands of the South China Sea. The numerous reefs, low-tide elevations, and skerries, however, are not subject to legal title and belong to the state on whose continental shelf they are located. While China has asserted a claim to the rocks and islands based on historic discovery, it has not put forth even a prima facie case to support such an audacious claim.

A prima facie case is one that asserts material facts and relevant law that would allow a judge to decide the case in favor of the proponent. In this case, however, even if one accepts as true that everything that China has said about its history in the region – a dubious proposition to be sure – China fails to assert a lawful claim. While China claims that its ancient records show that Chinese seafarers visited and named some of the rocks in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, it is not clear that the voyages were made as an official function of state or simple happenstance recorded by anonymous fishermen. As a matter of law, even if agents of the emperor visited the rocks and claimed them on his behalf, the visits are legally immaterial in the same way that the U.S. visits to the moon do not confer upon the United States legal title to that celestial body.

Mere discovery by itself is not a lawful basis for acquisition of territory, as the U.S. learned when it lost the seminal Island of Palmas arbitration in 1928. The island of Palmas lies between Indonesia and the Philippines, and the governments of the Netherlands and the United States, as colonial powers, submitted the dispute to arbitration. Although the United States asserted a claim of historic discovery on behalf of the Philippines from Spanish explorers, the arbitration panel awarded the island to the Netherlands because simple discovery without effective governance extending over a long period of time was immaterial as a matter of law. Island of Palmas is the most important case to uphold the legal principal that mere historic discovery is immaterial; other precedents include the Clipperton Island arbitration (France v. Mexico, 1933). In that case, Mexico, like the United States in the Palmas case, traced its claim of sovereignty from Spanish discovery. The arbitration, however, awarded the small feature to France based upon French occupation and usage.

Similarly, in the 1953 case at the International Court of Justice over the Minquiers and Écréhous groups in the Channel Islands, the court rejected a French claim based on historic presence and fishing rights that is remarkably similar to Chinese historic claims in the South China Sea. Instead, the court awarded the features to England based on subsequent exercise of jurisdiction over them by the Manorial court of the fief of Noirmont in Jersey. Furthermore, even assuming beyond the evidence that China actually had lawful title to the rocks and islands, it lost them long ago. This has nothing to do with Western imperialism, but rather China’s closure to the rest of the world. Inactivity and lack of official presence in a feature constitutes abandonment of title over time.

Maritime Zones

Seventh, while China has not made a prima facie case, let’s assume that it magically acquired legal title to every one of the rocks and islands in the South China Sea. In this case, under the law, China could be awarded only tiny maritime zones around them. States seek to augment or buttress their claims to tiny features in the vain hope that they can secure large maritime zones of sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction over the adjacent waters. The mindset that a nation can strike a bonanza of offshore territory and wealth from a tiny dot of coral is one of those “too good to be true” stories that never seem to die. Apparently, the potential jackpot for making such claims is too great to resist. A mid-ocean low-tide elevation, which is below water at high tide, but above water at low tide, is not entitled to any territorial sea. Zero.

A tiny rock jutting above water at high tide generates a territorial sea of only 452 nm2. In contrast, a bona fide island capable of sustaining human habitation or an economic life of its own generates an EEZ of 125,664 nm2, an area more than 275 times larger. Of course, if any of these zones overlap with another country’s zones, they have to be adjusted, and in the South China Sea, there’s the rub. International courts have uniformly rejected the idea that small features of any sort are entitled to large maritime zones, but the judgments in cases of overlapping zones are especially harsh. In the 2012 case between Nicaragua and Colombia at the ICJ, for example, the Court awarded legal title to Colombia to two tiny rocks, and then confined them within 12 nm territorial sea enclaves set within Nicaragua’s EEZ. The court did so by comparing the vast disparity of shoreline facing the area of ocean subject to dispute, and noted that while Columbia had minimal shoreline from its rock possessions, Nicaragua’s shoreline generated by its lengthy mainland coast was eight times longer. This principle of shoreline disparity examines only that coast from islands or mainland that actually face toward the opposing disputant, and it is particularly salient for the ASEAN states vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea. Take Vietnam, for example. Vietnam has a 2,200 km coastline facing the South China Sea, which is hundreds of times greater than the combined coastline of every rock and island in the region that faces Vietnam. Under the ICJ formula, Vietnam is accorded a vast, normal EEZ from its long coast, and whichever country has title to the islands within Vietnam’s EEZ would be afforded a very minimal zone. The precedent suggests that rather than winning the jackpot, the state with title to tiny, insignificant features that lie within another country’s EEZ are awarded rather tiny and insignificant rights over the nearby water.

Eighth, China’s herculean effort to construct and occupy new artificial islands in the South China Sea is also legally nugatory. China has constructed enormous artificial islands from seven reefs: Mischief Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef, and Cuarton Reef. Analysis at Middlebury College identifies each of these reefs appears to be a low-tide elevation; the Philippines has suggested in its arbitration filing against China that the latter three are rocks.

No matter how large an artificial island is constructed, it cannot acquire additional or new legal rights over what it is entitled to in its natural state. While China has expended enormous political capital and scared its neighbors into unprecedented embrace of the United States, India, and Japan, it has actually weakened, rather than strengthened its legal position in the South China

Construction activities on the Spratleys, seen July of this year.
Construction activities on the Spratleys, seen July of this year.

Sea. Why? Because the burden of proof of whether a feature is in its natural state a rock entitled to a 12 nm territorial sea and not a low-tide elevation entitled to nothing lies with the claimant. But now that China has so irreparably tampered with the evidence, it is virtually impossible to divine the natural state of its artificial islands. Some sources have recorded all of the features as mere low-tide elevations, whereas others say that at least some may be rocks. We may never know for sure now that China has hideously transformed them.

Appreciating Irony

The ninth and final irony in the South China Sea is that the principal coastal states that stand to benefit from the rule of law do not fully appreciate the ironies and so far have been unable to form a coherent approach to preserve their rights, yet the key is solely within their grasp. Brunei and Indonesia do not claim any feature in the South China Sea. Their EEZs are encroached upon by China, but because they claim no rocks, they are secondary to the disputes. Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines all assert far-reaching claims over various reefs, rocks and islands in the region. These three frontline states have the most to gain from cooperation, and the most to lose from Chinese maritime hegemony. These states must recognize now that they face an imminent threat of losing their EEZ to China, but how can they secure their moral and legal inheritance from UNCLOS?

First, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines should renounce their claim to any feature that is within the natural EEZ generated by a neighboring mainland or large island coastlines, such as Borneo, Mindanao, and Palawan. The same greed and historic hogwash that drives China’s audacious claims also sometimes attracts the frontline states, ruining any chance that they can work together. Only by renouncing legally specious claims against tiny features that generate tiny maritime zones can these states ensure that they preserve the EEZ. For developing states, the EEZ was the crown jewel of rights and jurisdiction in UNCLOS, and insistence upon unrealistic claims against their neighbors only ensures that they will lose it all. Unless these states work together, they will slowly but surely lose their EEZs, the principal inheritance that the law of the sea conferred on developing states.

If Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines can foreswear a claim of title to any feature within the EEZs of its neighbors, they can present a united front against China. Unity among the three nations is the best bet for galvanizing support within ASEAN, and by the member states of the European Union and NATO, and perhaps even Russia. By further diplomatically isolating China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia drastically raise the costs for Beijing, while lowering the costs for states outside the region to support them. American support for such a plan, for example, levels the playing field, while nominally avoiding “taking sides” with a particular claimant. By giving up legally unsupportable claims that encroach on their neighbors EEZs, the frontline states assure they enjoy their rightful legacy of UNCLOS.

James Kraska is professor in the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College and senior associate with the China Maritime Studies Institute, also at the Naval War College.

Featured Image: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Strategy Initiative via Reuters.

The Legal Rationale for Going Inside 12

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The following post by Dr. James Kraska was originally published at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.  It is re-posted here with the author’s permission.

While China conducts innocent passage around real U.S. islands of Alaska, the U.S. is apparently unable to do so around China’s fake islands in the South China Sea. The transit by Chinese warships in innocent passage through the territorial sea of Attu Island in the Aleutian chain has added an additional wrinkle to U.S. policy in the South China Sea.

On May 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had asked his staff to “look at options” for exercising the rights and freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ, to include flying maritime patrol aircraft over China’s new artificial islands in the region, and sending U.S. warships to within 12 nautical miles of them. Later that month, a P-8

The U.S. Navy's P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft (MPRA)
The U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft (MPRA)

surveillance aircraft with a CNN crew on board, was repeatedly warned to “go away quickly” from Fiery Cross Reef, even as it flew beyond 12 nm from the feature. Fiery Cross Reef is a Chinese-occupied outcropping that has been fortified by a massive 2.7 million square meter land reclamation into an artificial island with a 3,110-meter airstrip and harbor works capable of servicing large warships.

Warships and commercial vessels of all nations are entitled to conduct transit in innocent passage in the territorial sea of a rock or island of a coastal state, although aircraft do not enjoy such a right. Ironically, the website POLITICO reported on July 31 that the White House blocked plans by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, to send warships within 12 nm of China’s artificial islands – features that may not even qualify for a territorial sea. By blocking such transits, military officials apparently suggest that the White House tacitly accepts China’s unlawful claim to control shipping around its occupied features in the South China Sea. Senator John McCain complained that the United States was making a “dangerous mistake” by granting de facto recognition of China’s man-made “sovereignty” claims.

It is unclear whether features like Fiery Cross Reef are rocks or merely low-tide elevations that are submerged at high tide, and after China has so radically transformed them, it may now be impossible to determine their

PRC operations at Fiery Cross Reef
PRC operations at Fiery Cross Reef

natural state. Under the terms of the law of the sea, states with ownership over naturally formed rocks are entitled to claim a 12 nm territorial sea. On the other hand, low-tide elevations in the mid-ocean do not qualify for any maritime zone whatsoever. Likewise, artificial islands and installations also generate no maritime zones of sovereignty or sovereign rights in international law, although the owner of features may maintain a 500-meter vessel traffic management zone to ensure navigational safety.

Regardless of the natural geography of China’s occupied features in the South China Sea, China does not have clear legal title to them. Every feature occupied by China is challenged by another claimant state, often with clearer line of title from Spanish, British or French colonial rule. The nation, not the land, is sovereign, which is why there is no territorial sea around Antarctica – it is not under the sovereignty of any state, despite being a continent. As the United States has not recognized Chinese title to the features, it is not obligated to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea. Since the territorial sea is function of state sovereignty of each rock or island, and not a function of simple geography, if the United States does not recognize any state having title to the feature, then it is not obligated to observe a theoretical territorial sea and may treat the feature as terra nullius. Not only do U.S. warships have a right to transit within 12 nm of Chinese features, they are free to do so as an exercise of highs seas freedom under article 87 of the Law of the Sea Convention, rather than the more limited regime of innocent passage. Furthermore, whereas innocent passage does not permit overflight, high seas freedoms do, and U.S. naval aircraft lawfully may overfly such features.

In response, it might be suggested that while the United States may not recognize Chinese ownership of the rocks, it must realize that some country, perhaps one of the coastal states actually located in the vicinity of the feature, has lawful title, and therefore the U.S. Navy is bound to observe a putative territorial sea.

It is possible, however, that there is no state that has lawful title, and indeed the swirling debate and paucity of evidence rendered by claimants suggests this may be the case. Before World War II, few if any of the features were effectively governed by anyone, except Japan, which illegally occupied them during war. Tokyo gave up its claim after World War II. Similarly, actions taken by states after 1945 to seize maritime features using armed aggression are prima facie unlawful under article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations. Furthermore, actions taken by a state to fortify its claim after there is a dispute are similarly void of legal effect. In any event, the strongest claims appear to flow from the doctrine of uti possidetis, which stipulates that lawful possession is assumed by colonies after they become independent states. Prior to 1945, conquest was a lawful means of acquiring title to territory, so the European colonial powers certainly enjoyed legal title to the features they controlled. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam derive their title to features from Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

More importantly, even assuming that one or another state may have lawful title to a feature, other states are not obligated to confer upon that nation the right to unilaterally adopt and enforce measures that interfere with navigation, until lawful title is resolved. Indeed, observing any nation’s rules pertaining to features under dispute legitimizes that country’s claim and takes sides. This point is particularly critical for commercial overflight since states already manage international air traffic through the International Civil Aviation Organization and the worldwide air traffic control regions. Finally, there is a policy reason that supports this approach. Given the proliferation of claims over the hundreds of rocks, reefs, skerries and cays in the South China Sea, if the international community recognizes the maximum theoretical rights generated by each of them, the oceans and airspace will come to look like Swiss cheese and be practically closed off to free navigation and overflight.

Distinguished American historian Samuel Flagg Bemis called the doctrine of freedom of the seas the “ancient birthright” of the American Republic.[1] This birthright faces its gravest risk since unrestricted submarine warfare. Woodrow Wilson brought the United States into World War I to vindicate a Fourteen Point program for peace. Point number 2 was for “freedom of navigation … in peace and in war.” Similarly, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that set forth principles for a new world order – a united nations. Principle Seven committed them to freedom of the seas. Maritime freedoms and the law of the sea are at an inflection point. The United States and the international community must take action now to operate with regularity on, under, and above the surface of the South China Sea, persistently and routinely in the vicinity of China’s artificial islands. Only a normalized presence today will ensure predictability and stability tomorrow.

[1] Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States, 4th ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1955): 875.

Dr. James Kraska is Professor in the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, where he previously served as Howard S. Levie Chair in International Law from 2008-13. During 2013-14, he was a Mary Derrickson McCurdy Visiting Scholar at Duke University, where he taught international law of the sea. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia School of Law, Guest Investigator at the Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Senior Associate at the Naval War College’s Center on Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups.

Collective Defense in the High North: It’s Time for NATO to Prioritize the Arctic

By Sally DeBoer

In late May of this year, NATO, along with Sweden and Finland, participated in the Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) 2015. The aerial exercise, which included more than 100 aircraft and 4,000 ace_4personnel, predictably ruffled a few feathers in Moscow; Russia responded by mobilizing their nascent but formidable ‘Arctic Brigade’ for an unannounced inspection. Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic (and in general) are thinly – if at all – veiled. Russia unabashedly considers itself the preeminent actor in the High North. Recent remarks by U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft seem to codify this self-assessment. On July 8th, Zunkunft conceded that the U.S. is “not even in the same league as Russia right now” (this assessment was based on a comparison between U.S. and Russian Arctic investment and infrastructure). The discussion of the changing Arctic landscape is hardly new, nor is it limited to re-freezing Cold War tensions. The United States, NATO, and their Nordic allies have a vested interest in building and sustaining a meaningful presence in the High North. While a good start, ACE and other exercises like it won’t be sufficient to secure not only these actors’ self-interested notions but also the idea of the Arctic (and its rapidly opening maritime corridors) as a freely accessible extension of the global commons. The U.S. and their arctic-minded allies should encourage NATO to make the Arctic a higher priority now.

NATO’s stance on the Arctic has, to this point, been non-committal. As recently as 2013, NATO outright rejected idea of establishing a strong direct military presence in the Arctic High North, citing laudable diplomatic hopes that cooperation would win out over confrontation in the region. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a lack of meaningful counterweight in the High North will lead to more cooperative regimes or greater adhesion to existing legal precedents. The Arctic is dynamic and should be treated as such. The following analysis provides just a few reasons to support a defined, consistent, and robust role for NATO in the Arctic.

Arctic actors, including many NATO member states like the U.S., Iceland, and Norway, have much to gain economically from a rapidly opening Arctic in terms of both resources and newly navigable shipping routes. The Arctic is often described as a vast storehouse of resources – oil and natural gas, other minerals, fisheries, and forests- and the prospect that climate change will permit increased exploration for, and exploitation of, these presumed resources has generated a great deal of interest, both public and private.[1] The High North has long been a lynchpin of the Russian petro-state. Indeed, as of 2013 eleven percent of Russia’s GNP, 93 percent of its natural gas, and 75 percent of its oil came from the Russian Arctic.

Gazprom's pioneering Arctic drilling platform Prirazlomnaya
Gazprom’s pioneering Arctic platform Prirazlomnaya

With access to these lucrative resources increasing and costs to exploit them decreasing, so too will conflict over access to those resources increase. In addition to tangible reserves, climate change has also opened previously impassable shipping lanes, some of which overlie disputed sovereignty claims. The national interests of NATO and allied actors with either Arctic real estate or interests would be best served by a consistent, cohesive NATO policy on the Arctic that would serve as a counterweight to Russia’s economic ambitions; a prospect that has thus-far eluded the alliance.

A sustained allied naval presence has been, over the past several decades, been the primary arbiter of freely accessible global maritime arteries as an extension of the global commons. This protection must extend to the Arctic, particularly as new shipping routes progressively open. The Northwest Passage just to the north of Canada could become an economically viable shipping route, passable most of the year, by mid-century. Russia’s rather extensive territorial claims in the Arctic encroach on the Northern Sea Route

Map of Arctic territorial claims (2015)
Map of Arctic territorial claims (2015)

above Siberia, an issue of particular concern to the U.S. Thus far, efforts to resolve disputes over the High North have been cooperative and civil, but that civility has never been significantly challenged. As the Heritage foundation’s Luke Koffey and Daniel Kochis argue, “NATO should consider the implications of Russia’s recent aggressive military behavior; NATO is a collective security organization with five members that are also Arctic countries and two close allies (Finland and Sweden) with Arctic territory. NATO’s commitment to a consistent and robust presence in the High North would be the surest protection of continued rules-governed behavior if (and likely when) tensions rise. Rather than contribute to tensions in the High North (which, this author predicts, will be the narrative Russia will pursue in response to a more cogent NATO Arctic policy), NATO’s presence and prescience, if such a policy is meaningfully pursued, would be a stabilizing force that would ensure free access to newly navigable waters and accessible resources in accordance with international law and orderly management of territorial claims.

The practicalities of achieving the consensus necessary within NATO to move forward with such a step cannot be overlooked. Historically, the alliance has struggled with a general scarcity of consensus. U.S. leadership on the issue of the Arctic will be indispensable in convincing member states with no direct Arctic interests (and plenty of competing security concerns) to move forward with policy and action on the High North, as well as convincing fellow arctic actors that non-Arctic member states deserve their share of influence in NATO’s Arctic policies. Despite any challenges inherent in alliance operations, supporting a greater and more carefully defined role for NATO in the changing Arctic remains far preferable, in this author’s estimation, to a unilateral attempt to provide a counterweight in the High North.

A possible first step might be to cooperatively drafting a statement of intention on NATO’s intentions and intended role in the Arctic, officially acknowledging NATO’s interests and stakes in the region. Further, continued and broader participation in exercises like ACE send a clear signal to Arctic allies like Finland and Sweden, along with the international community at large, that NATO is prepared to face the unique challenges inherent in Arctic operations. The sooner that NATO can find cohesion and take action on their Arctic policy, the better. Already playing from behind in terms of investment and strategy, a comprehensive NATO Arctic policy and presence will provide the best chance to sustain not only for NATO members’ and allies’ economic interests but also the concept of the changing Arctic as an extension of the global commons.

[1] Le Miere, C., & Mazo, J. (2013). Economic Opportunities. In Arctic Opening: Insecurity and Opportunity. The International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Sally DeBoer is an associate editor for CIMSEC.  She is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a recent graduate of Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Diplomacy program. She can be reached at Sally.L.DeBoer(at)gmail(dot)com.