REYKJAVIK, Iceland – NATO commanders and lawmakers from alliance nations were gathering Thursday to examine the risks posed by the thawing Arctic Circle and the prospect of standoffs among nations rushing to lay claim to the energy reserves there.
The possibility of new shipping routes through once-frozen regions threatens to complicate already delicate relations between countries with competing claims to Arctic territory — particularly as previously inaccessible areas open to exploration for their abundant reserves of oil and natural gas.
The U.S., Russia, Canada, Britain, China and several northern nations are all attempting to claim jurisdiction over Arctic territory.
Lee Willett, head of the maritime studies program at London-based military think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said that as shipping routes from the Pacific to Europe open up, warships from a host of nations are likely to 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."
NATO's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Iceland's outgoing Prime Minister Geir Haarde — who tendered his resignation on Monday amid the country's economic crisis — will both address the one-day conference in Reykjavik on the issue.
NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, is also due to attend, alongside representatives of Britain and other NATO countries.
Military strategists expect territorial disputes to become more intense as a shrinking ice cap allows greater exploration, just as energy demands increase.
Some scientists predict that Arctic waters could even be ice-free in summer by 2013, decades earlier than previously thought.
Russia and Canada have already traded verbal shots over each other's intentions.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last year he'll firm up control of disputed Arctic waters with stricter registration requirements for ships sailing in the Northwest Passage — though Canada's control of the passage is widely disputed, including by the U.S.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will also act to mark out its Arctic territory, though many dispute Moscow's assertion that it has the right to control an area equivalent to the size of France.
De Hoop Scheffer is expected to hold a meeting on military issues with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov next week.
At least four people were arrested outside the Reykjavik conference venue on Wednesday ahead of the meeting — two of them for burning a NATO flag. Many Icelanders oppose the volcanic island's membership of the military bloc, fearing it compromises the nation's independence.