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Greenland Meeting Highlights Arctic's Growing Importance

Jun. 2, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By GERARD O’DWYER   |   Comments
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HELSINKI — The multinational dimension to improving security and military surveillance in the world’s vast Arctic region will top the agenda when defense chiefs from the eight leading Arctic nations meet June 11 in Greenland to discuss future challenges.

Hosted by Denmark, the two-day meeting will take place in the southwestern town of Ilulissat. Besides Denmark, the meeting will bring together defense chiefs from the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

“There is no set agenda for this informal meeting, but the important topics that will be discussed cover air and sea rescue, maritime surveillance, and environmental protection,” said Danish Defense Command spokesman Anders Fridberg.

The Ilulissat meeting follows an unprecedented number of Arctic-focused interstate political and military talks since January.

Together, the eight biggest Arctic countries control areas extending more than 18 million square miles — almost 10 percent of the planet’s surface.

“The Arctic zones, and their opening up to mineral development and shipping, pose an enormous challenge in the future,” Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Iceland’s foreign minister, told Defense News. “It is essential that countries cooperate to find solutions that allow development and protect the fragile environment that is the Arctic. Security is certain to become a more important issue.”

The mineral-rich potential of the Arctic, together with the development of the shipping corridor between Europe and Asia, have given the region a heightened strategic security and economic value, Sveinsson said.

The defense commanders’ informal agenda in Greenland is certain to take its lead from the May 15 Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, which culminated in the Kiruna Declaration. This cemented the Arctic Council’s position as the primary organization for Arctic maritime trade and economic development.

The Kiruna Declaration will have added significance for defense chiefs, given that the mix of countries represented in Ilulissat comprises the eight permanent members of the Arctic Council.

“The declaration confirms that the basic principles of the Arctic Council are to lead the way for all decisions concerning the Arctic,” Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s foreign affairs minister and former defense minister, said in a statement.

The declaration’s call for “maintaining peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the Arctic” also will have implications for the defense commanders’ meeting in Greenland, given that the council has assigned “observer status” to six countries, including China.

“It is no accident that the meeting of defense chiefs is taking place so soon after Kiruna, and after the Arctic Council oversaw the introduction of its first legally binding agreement covering cooperation in aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic,” said Michael Fedder, a Brussels-based political analyst.

The Ilulissat meeting also will cover Iceland’s proposal to secure European Union support to establish a joint maritime service center for economic development and surveillance, Fedder said.

“The importance of the Arctic can be seen in the Arctic Council itself, which has gone from being a talk shop to becoming a policy-setting organization that countries like China and Japan want to join,” Fedder said. “The council is fixed to become the leading catalyst for [Arctic] economic development.”

International cooperation is a fundamental goal of managing economic development and climate change in the Arctic, said Gen. Peter Bartram, Denmark’s defense chief, who is chairing the Ilulissat meeting.

“We do not want to militarize the Arctic. Quite the opposite. We have invested money to produce an analysis of what is needed and how best to organize ourselves,” Bartram said May 10 at the Danish Embassy in Washington.

“Once this is done, we will move forward to find ways to increase our situational awareness and our ability to deploy troops if needed,” he said.

The US views events like this as “good examples of the way Arctic militaries engage in dialogue on emerging issues of mutual concern,” said John Cornelio, US Northern Command spokesman. Those issues include the impact of climate change on military infrastructure and operations, and sharing knowledge of proper training and equipment for search-and-rescue missions in the region.

The US plans to participate in the next Arctic Security Forces Roundtable in August, he added.

The meeting in Ilulissat will follow top-level talks on Arctic issues between Russia and neighboring Nordic nations.

Russia’s defense minister, Sergey Shoigu, proposed strengthening Arctic-based military security cooperation measures with Finland when he met here May 29 with his Finnish counterpart, Carl Haglund.

The talks could lead to joint exercises between nonaligned Finland and Russian forces in the Arctic, based on a cooperation process similar to the joint naval and multiforce exercises Russia runs with NATO state Norway.

Arctic nations are pursuing a cooperative policy that should significantly reduce security concerns and tensions, said Lassi Heininen, a professor of Arctic politics at the University of Lapland.

“It is crucial to retain and improve on the level of political stability in the Arctic region that has been maintained in the region since the Cold War,” Heininen said.

Issues related to the direction of future policy, and the likely role to be played by the military in improving policing and surveillance in the Arctic, emerged during May 17 talks here between Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and his Norwegian counterpart, Jens Stoltenberg.

According to Katainen, the leading Arctic nations must agree on how to shape economic policy and security cooperation to best exploit the vast untapped mineral resources in the region.

“Finland’s revised Strategy for the Arctic Region will be finalized by early summer. Our new strategy aims to achieve wider international cooperation and produce new business opportunities,” Katainen said.

The initiative gets underway as Denmark establishes a dedicated Arctic Defense Command.

Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.

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