What to Learn from Arctic Cooperation?
According to Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “States bordering an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea should cooperate with each other in the exercise of their rights and […] endeavor, directly or through an appropriate regional organization: (a) to coordinate the management, conservation, exploration and exploitation of the living resources of the sea; (b) to coordinate the implementation of their rights and duties with respect to the protection and preservation of the marine environment; (c) to coordinate their scientific research policies and undertake where appropriate joint programs of scientific research in the area; (d) to invite, as appropriate, other interested States or international organizations to cooperate with them in furtherance of the provisions of this article.”16 As such, pragmatic cooperation between signatory states not only conforms to the common interests of all parties, but is also a legal obligation.
The coastal states of many closed or semi-closed seas, such as the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, have established kinds of cooperation mechanisms. Existing experience of ocean governance regimes elsewhere in the world could provide valuable lessons for the South China Sea. Given the similar attributes related to sovereignty disputes, strategic significance and military
concerns, the mechanism in the Arctic Ocean, namely the Arctic Council, as a relatively mature model with a successful practice record, may provide an important example for the South China Sea region in the establishment of a cooperation mechanism.
Similarities between the Arctic and the South China Sea
The Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea have some commonalities in terms of multi-state territorial claims, as well as maritime rights and delimitation. There are overlapping claims between Russia and Denmark for the seabed under the Lomonosov and Alpha-mendeleev Ridges under consideration by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and Canada has also submitted another competing claim to extend the outer limits of its continental shelf. Much like the South China Sea, there have been clashes between the coastal states in the Arctic in the past as well. For example, from 1958 to 1961 and in 1976, there was a state of armed conflict and diplomatic breakdown between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights. In August 2007, Russia formally staked its claim to a large portion of the Arctic Ocean that includes the North Pole, by planting a flag on the floor of the ocean, which aroused strong opposition from other Arctic countries.
Both the South China Sea and the Arctic are important fishing grounds: approximately ten percent of the global catch is made in the South China Sea and five per cent in the Arctic.17 In recent years, the diminishing ice cap has caused a growing emphasis on the exploration of oil and gas reserves, international waterways, and commercial activities in the Arctic. The prospects of seasonally ice-free Arctic trade routes and rich natural resources have aroused considerable interest around the world. In both the Arctic and the South China Sea, the perception that the ocean floor is rich in energy resources is an important driver of disputes.18
Of course, the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea are different in terms of their geography, climate, population and geostrategic importance. The Arctic is ice-covered after all and is home to only 4 million people, which, at least for now, limits commercial navigation, whereas the South China Sea is the second most used sea-lane in the world and is bordered by 10 nations with a combined population of approximately 1.9 billion.19 Moreover, all of the coastal countries in the South China Sea are in competition to secure the largest share of maritime rights allowable under the UNCLOS, and their exclusive economic zones seriously overlap, whereas the delimitation of maritime boundaries are almost resolved in Arctic region, and the Arctic states are genuinely committed to resolving their disputes using existing international legal frameworks.20
Despite the differences, the examples of cooperation in the Arctic region could still provide useful clues to facilitate the establishment of a workable cooperation mechanism for all parties in the South China Sea, as long as they are willing and agree to set aside their disputes and work together to advance specific issues for regional benefits.21
The successful experience of the Arctic Council
The Arctic Council is a regional forum that currently consists of eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) and six indigenous groups (Aleut, Athabaskan, Gwich’in, Inuit, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Saami). The Council first originated as the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). In 1991, the Arctic states met in Rovaniemi, Finland and signed the Declaration on the Protection of the Arctic Environment, also known as the Rovaniemi Declaration, in which they adopted the AEPS. The
objectives of the AEPS revolved around the cooperation of the eight Arctic states to address environmental issues.
Beginning with environmental protection, the focus of cooperation gradually expanded to other relevant areas in the course of the implementation of AEPS, especially sustainable development, and ultimately promoted the establishment of an inter-governmental organization in the Arctic. On September 19, 1996, the Arctic states met in Ottawa, Canada and signed the Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council. According to the Declaration, the Arctic Council was a cooperative forum, focusing on addressing issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic region.
So far, the Arctic Council has developed into a mature mechanism. The membership of Arctic Council is divided into three categories: full member states, permanent participants and observers. Member states are the eight Arctic nations, and all decisions of the Council require the unanimous consent of eight members. Six indigenous peoples’ organizations are granted Permanent Participants status, who have full consultation rights in connection with the Council’s negotiations and decisions, but no voting right. Observers include non-arctic states, inter-governmental organizations, inter-parliamentary organizations and non-governmental organizations. Observers may propose projects through an Arctic state or a Permanent Participant and provide views on the issues under discussion.22
Ministerial-level meetings of the Arctic Council are the decisionmaking body, which are held biennially, and meetings of Senior Arctic Officials, the executive body, are convened between ministerial meetings. The chairmanship of the Council rotates every two years between the eight member states. In the past, the location of the Secretariat was rotated biennially with the chairmanship of the Council. At the Nuuk Ministerial Meeting in May 2011, Arctic Ministers decided to establish the standing Arctic Council Secretariat in Tromso, Norway. The Secretariat became
operational on June 1, 2013.23 By setting up the administrative office, the Arctic Council took a substantive step forward shifting from an intergovernmental forum to a governing body.
Besides progress on organizational structure, the Council has presided over the passing of three treaties in recent years: the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue, the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response and the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. Agreement on these treaties demonstrates that the Arctic Council has gained legal footing within the international community.24 The Arctic Council has also actively developed its organization. The Arctic Economic Council was formally established in September 2014 to comprehensively manage the economic field and promote sustainable development in the Arctic.
It is safe to say that the Arctic Council has been successful in promoting institutional dialogue and has realized substantive cooperation between the Arctic states. Even though the Arctic Council enjoys a limited mandate from its member states, it has been successful in environmental governance and diffusing tensions, and the employment of mutually beneficial compromises and diplomatic solutions to maintain stability and predictability are preferred. Regarding the experience of the Arctic Council’s development, there are many valuable insights that have been summed up by international scholars.
First, with the Arctic Council platform, the eight Arctic states has together built a regional consciousness and constructed the idea that the Arctic is of the Arctic countries. Although there are some disputes and struggles among several Arctic states, the common identity of the eight countries, to a certain extent, have increased mutual trust and facilitated cooperation. So it is easier for the Arctic nations to cooperate with regards to
responsible stewardship and use UNCLOS and supplementing treaties as the legal basis.25 Tackling the challenges through institutionalized cooperation is the mainstream of international politics in the Arctic.26
Second, since its establishment, the Arctic Council has excluded sensitive security and political issues, limiting its responsibilities to promoting regional sustainable development and environmental protection, which has effectively avoided the extension of political confrontation to the Council and achieved great success in environmental protection and sustainable development. Now the Arctic Council has established six working groups to address issues related to environmental protection, namely the Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP), the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF), the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR), the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME) and the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).
Third, the Arctic regime was established in a soft law format, where the nations initially gathered under the AEPS to formulate scientific approaches to combatting pollution in the Arctic region. “From this common concern, the council continues to use science as a common language for tackling contentious matters.”27 Numerous researchers and scientists from around the globe have participated in the Arctic cooperation, and scientific cooperation has become an important aspect of Arctic governance. The Council’s heavy reliance on the world’s scientific community has often helped mitigate potential friction or antagonism.28
Finally, the limited membership status of the Council could create a more collaborative atmosphere, because a smaller-sized group makes it
more difficult for nation states to defy the will of the Council. On the other hand, in order to prevent centralization of power within the forum, the chairmanship of the Arctic Council is rotated among the eight member states every two years. The political structure of the Council allows for an equitable distribution of power among the members, which encourages countries to cooperate to the best of their abilities.29