Will China have rights to the North Pole? Most likely, yes. But first, let's take a look at who has rights to the North Pole today.
"Power, not international law, will settle the issue. Indeed, international law recognizes this fact by making title dependent on a nation's ability to exert control over an area," said Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago in the Wall Street Journal article "The New Race for the Arctic."
"This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and plant flags and say 'we're claiming this territory'," said Canada's Foreign Minister Peter MacKay. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Leslie Phillips said "We wish the Russian scientists a safe expedition..."
Russian scientists, joined by the veteran Australian polar explorer Michael McDowell and Frederik Paulsen, a Swedish pharmaceuticals millionaire and co-sponsor of the effort, indeed had a safe and successful trip to the Pole and to the sea bed nearly two miles beneath it. The expedition amused the entire world, and only days after the historic dive, countries and legal specialists started wondering "What does all this mean and who really owns the Pole?"
At the moment, the legal picture surrounding claims to the North Pole is unclear. Countries control 12 miles of their coastal seas; everything beyond that is considered open sea, available to everyone on an equal basis. The U.S. Senate has not yet ratified U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea, which states that the five countries surrounding the Arctic Circle -- Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark (via Greenland) -- are limited to the 200-mile economic zone around their coasts.
In December 2001, Moscow claimed that the Lomonosov ridge was an extension of the Eurasian landmass, and therefore part of Russia's continental shelf under international law. The U.N. rejected Moscow's claim, citing a lack of evidence, but Russia will resubmit it in 2009, this time with evidence brought by the recent expedition. If recognized, the claim would give Russia control of more than 460,000 square miles, representing almost half of the Arctic seabed. Ratifying the U.N. convention would give Washington at least a seat on the panel that would eventually rule on the Russian claim.
Professor Posner believes that power, not law, will define ownership of the pole. "That is why Russia is sending ships into the Arctic, and why Canada is saying that it will patrol the Northwest Passage. As long as such expressions of power are credible, other nations, disadvantaged by distance, will generally acquiesce and sovereignty will be extended accordingly. Russia's expression of power is credible; Canada's is not. Canada cannot prevent other countries from sending ships up the Northwest Passage, as the U.S. has demonstrated from time to time for just this purpose". According to Posner, Canada's "recent announcement that it will build patrol vessels in order to establish sovereignty over the passage had a belligerent tone uncharacteristic of our peaceful neighbor."
The issue boils down to: who has the power, the economic resources, and the access to control the North Pole and shipping routes between Europe, America and Asia, opening up due to global warming?
Denmark and Norway seem to be the first ones to lose the bid on every aspect. Canada has access, while America has the power and resources -- but since the end of the Cold War, the two countries have mostly not cooperated in the Arctic. Actually, Canada and the U.S. have mostly ignored the issue, and today Ottawa does not have the vessels to go to the Pole, while Washington has no time to ratify the U.N. convention. The only country left that can realistically claim the pole is Russia, which has the power and the access - but what about the financial resources?
Even with their enormous profits from higher global oil and gas prices, it is hard to imagine that Russia's national champions Gazprom or Rosneft can handle the exploitation of the North Pole single-handedly. Americans, who do have the money and expertise to develop the Arctic, have lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to investing in Russia. That's where China might play a vital role in developing the natural resources at the top of the world.
The Chinese have previously demonstrated an ability to come up with vast sums of cash literally overnight for quick access to Russian natural resources. In 2005, when state-owned OAO Rosneft acquired the assets of Yukos in a government auction, China produced $10 billion to fund Rosneft's winning bid. In return for their investment, the Chinese don't necessarily want ownership, but oil and gas at today's prices delivered for decades to come.
Imagine the North Pole being developed through a Russian-Chinese joint venture, guarded by a fleet of Russian and Chinese icebreakers, subs and helicopters, making sure that no one trespasses on this stake. What about access, power and money then? After being ignored and nearly being written off by the West during the Nineties, to many foreigners the new resurgent Russia looks like a country with a chip on its shoulder. Russia remains an easy country to pick on when it comes to Putin's popularity, which many Westerners cannot accept as authentic, the Kremlin's assertive international statements, and a growing nationalism among the new generation of Russians.
However, the officially Communist People's Republic of China has been a different case. Due to the mystique of China's ancient civilization, or the fear of a rising superpower, or simply because Chinese people look different (and therefore are expected to think differently) from Caucasians, Europe and America largely ignore the suppression of democracy and religious freedom in the Middle Kingdom. Even multinational corporations like Google that have slogans like "don't be evil" support the Chinese government's Internet censorship, which would be unacceptable in the Western world.
Russians, enjoying religious freedom and uncensored access to the Internet, observe this double standard and wonder if their country would be criticized as much if almost every item sold at Wal-Mart were made in Russia. Russians also see America's close relationship with its authoritarian Persian Gulf Arab allies, and wonder if Western criticisms have more to do with Russia reasserting ownership over the country's natural resources than with genuine concern about human rights.
Moscow does not necessarily condone China's repressive policies. In fact, many retired Russian generals and pundits have publicly accused China of having long-term designs on Russian territory. Politics aside, Russia's recent economic revival has demonstrated that it is much easier for Russian companies to do business overland than overseas, and China offers a larger potential market than North America and Europe combined. Furthermore, with a declining population and vast natural resources in the Russian Far East, Russia is making every effort to maintain friendly relations with the superpower rising on its doorstep.
China has proven to not care about many issues that other governments claim to be concerned about, and it controls hundreds of billions of liquid cash reserves that it can choose to invest in a very short period of time. So my question is -- when the Chinese get involved, who will have the rights to the North Pole then?
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Map of Lomonosov Ridge: