Arctic and Antarctica, the world’s two regions within the polar circles of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, were rarely discussed in the past (be it in general literature on geopolitics, law or international relations), but lately have gained the attention of the international community.
At first glance it seems that the two opposite but complementary polar caps have much in common – for a general audience the differentiating point might be only a TV quiz-like question: “Where polar bears and where penguins live?” However, when taking a closer look, a significant difference becomes apparent: the two opposing poles are of a different morphological and tectonic, climatic, anthropo-biological, political and indeed of different legal standing.
The South Pole – Antarctica – is the region governed by a treaty which is fully accepted by the entire international community (that includes all of the neighboring and interested states), but is, however, of a limited timeline (50 years). In the North – Arctic – on the contrary, the setup of a special legal framework is still under discussion. Due to the current global warming, vast perennial ice sheets are melting, resulting not only in an environmental threat but also marking an opening of certain economic opportunities (including alternative transportation and shipping routes, namely the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route and the Arctic Bridge, but also large mineral resources exploitation prospects). A new environmental reality unleashed a commercially–driven run on the Arctic, often described by the media as “land grab in the Arctic” or “new gold rush in the High North” (five circumpolar states are the major players striving to acquire substantial geoeconomic and geopolitical shares in the northern region and by doing so, conflicting over the possible demarcation lines).
The question arises if the absence of a definite legal setting in the Arctic and the increased focus on national (geoeconomic and geopolitical) interests (and prides) by the five concerned states might trigger border tensions, domestic unrest, an open armed conflict and hence, endanger the global security. Among the Five there is a lot: two P-5 members and both of them (former) superpowers, four are NATO members facing Russia on the other edge, three European versus two American, one in the EU, three of the G–8, and all of them the OSCE members.
What is to preserve the major powers’ balance – a change or the maintenance of the current Arctic and Antarctica status quo?