Arctic’s thaw brings security risks for NATO

NATO will need a military presence in the Arctic as global warming melts frozen sea routes and major powers rush to lay claim to lucrative energy reserves, the military bloc’s chief said Thursday.

NATO commanders and lawmakers meeting in Iceland’s capital said the Arctic thaw is bringing the prospect of new standoffs between powerful nations.

“I would be the last one to expect military conflict — but there will be a military presence,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters. “It should be a military presence that is not overdone, and there is a need for political cooperation and economic cooperation.”

The opening up of Arctic sea routes once navigable only by icebreakers threatens to complicate delicate relations between countries with competing claims to Arctic territory — particularly as exploration for oil and natural gas becomes possible in once inaccessible areas.

De Hoop Scheffer said negotiations involving Russia, NATO and other nations will be key to preventing a future conflict. The NATO chief is expected to meet Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov next week for talks.

The United States, Russia and Canada are among the countries attempting to claim jurisdiction over Arctic territory alongside Nordic nations. Analysts say China is also likely to join a rush to capture energy reserves.

“Several Arctic rim countries are strengthening their capabilities, and military activity in the High North region has been steadily increasing,” de Hoop Scheffer told delegates.

Some scientists predict that Arctic waters could be ice-free in summers by 2013, decades earlier than previously thought. De Hoop Scheffer said trans-Arctic routes are likely to become an alternative to passage through the Suez or Panama canals for commercial shipping.

“Climate change is not a fanciful idea, it is already a reality, a reality that brings with it certain new challenges, including for NATO,” de Hoop Scheffer said.

The NATO chief said an upsurge in energy exploration — and the likelihood of more commercial ships needing emergency rescue — would require a larger NATO presence in the Arctic.

“The end of the Cold War resulted in a marked reduction in military activity in the High North — Iceland would like it to stay that way,” Iceland’s outgoing Prime Minister Geir Haarde told the conference.

Haarde tendered his resignation Monday amid the country’s economic crisis and said the one-day conference was among his final duties before he steps down on Saturday.

Lee Willett, head of the maritime studies program at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think tank, said that as routes open up, warships from nations seeking to defend claims on energy resources will follow.

“Having lots of warships, from lots of nations who have lots of competing claims on territory — that may lend itself to a rather tense situation,” Willett said. “We may see that flash points come to pass there more readily than elsewhere in the world.”

Russia and Canada have already traded verbal shots over each other’s intentions in the Arctic, and Canada has beefed up its military presence in the region, announcing plans to build a new army training center and a deep-water port in contested Arctic waters. Norway, the U.S. and Denmark also have claims in the vast region, while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seeks to lay claim to Arctic territory the size of France.

Six people were arrested on Wednesday outside the Reykjavik conference venue — two for burning a NATO flag. Many Icelanders oppose the volcanic island’s membership in the military bloc, fearing it compromises the nation’s independence.

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