The future of the Arctic Region: cooperation or confrontation?

January 15, 2015 - nr.90

Summary and conclusions

Climate change is having a major impact on the Arctic and it is accelerating, with inevitable implications for ecological, social and economic conditions in the vulnerable Arctic biosphere. The Arctic is warming up faster than other parts of the world, owing to feedback loops in the climate system. Over the coming decades the region may become largely ice-free. Melting icecaps on land, for instance in Greenland, are also causing sea levels to rise faster, with implications for the Netherlands. At the same time, the weather is becoming more extreme, not only in the Arctic but also elsewhere, as weather patterns in various parts of the world affect one another. These are worrying developments, as there is a serious risk of irreparable damage to the Arctic environment. On the other hand, melting ice also creates new opportunities for the extraction of oil and gas and for opening up new shipping routes. An estimated 13% of the world’s as yet undiscovered oil reserves and 30% of gas reserves are believed to lie in the Arctic. New shipping routes along the Russian and Canadian coasts and via the North Pole will eventually lead to a substantial reduction in the length of voyages. These prospects are creating high expectations about the economic potential of the Arctic but also concern about this generating conflict between the Arctic countries.

However, contrary to what is generally expected, changing climate conditions will not lead in the short term to large-scale extraction of oil and gas, or busy shipping traffic along the new routes. The weather is becoming more extreme, with more storms, rain and snow, and less predictable sea ice conditions. These factors are serious obstacles to the extraction of oil and gas and to shipping in an environment where it is already very difficult to operate. Prices on the energy and raw materials market, as well as the availability of infrastructure for the use of the new shipping routes, will also affect the extent to which economic activity can be developed in the region.

Developments in the Arctic are of particular importance to Russia, as the largest Arctic coastal state with the longest coastline and major oil and gas reserves within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The region is also of major military-strategic significance to Russia. It provides a home port for its Northern Fleet, and within a matter of decades will give the country new ice-free ports and hence greater access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Of course, the impact of climate change and the new economic opportunities are also of importance to the other Arctic states. With the exception of Iceland, all the Arctic states have recently published new or revised Arctic strategies. Asian countries, with China at the forefront, are also making their presence felt in the Arctic; they want to take advantage of the new economic opportunities and will attempt to influence developments in the region. Various European countries, including the UK and Germany, have also drawn up Arctic policies.

There are conflicts of interest and disputes between the Arctic states and also with non-Arctic states. These concern territorial claims, delineation of maritime zones and jurisdiction over the new shipping routes. However, these disputes seems unlike to escalate into military or other conflict in the foreseeable future, partly because of the Arctic states’ mutual interests and interdependence. International legislation offers solutions to many of the prevailing issues, and is accepted as such by the Arctic countries. For the time being the countries remain focused on cooperation, especially in the Arctic Council.

There is a certain degree of military build-up in the region, but so far no worrying degree of militarisation. The reopening of bases along the coasts and the expansion of certain military capabilities are partly connected with the need for disaster prevention and relief and to protect territory that climate change is making more accessible. It is hard to predict whether the security situation in the Arctic will remain stable in the long term. The current crisis in Ukraine, for example, may have lasting implications for Arctic relations.

The crisis following the annexation of the Crimea and Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine have created uncertainty as to how relations between Russia and Western countries will develop. This has already had implications for the Arctic region, since Arctic oil exploration is covered by the European sanctions announced in late July 2014, initially for one year. Oil projects in the region are affected. The sanctions apply to new contracts. On 8 September 2014 the EU agreed on an additional package of sanctions. Should Russia decide to distance itself even further from the West, this is bound to affect cooperation in the Arctic, and especially the Arctic Council. The constructive cooperation that has prevailed up to now could then give way to relations reminiscent of the Cold War.

The Arctic could therefore become an area of tension owing to developments not directly related to the region itself. If geopolitical relations between Russia and Western countries were to worsen in the long term, this could have an adverse impact on the current stable situation in the Arctic; but the shift to a multipolar world, with a new balance of power between Russia, China and the US, may also affect the region. China sees the Arctic as a global issue, and its wish to gain a foothold in Arctic may generate tension.

In the AIV’s view, the following circumstances and actual or potential disputes may conceivably lead to greater tension:

  1. a long-term deterioration in relations between the West and Russia, perhaps as a result of the crises in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine;
  2. assertive action by China with regard to raw materials and/or shipping routes;
  3. disagreement on delineation of the continental shelf, for example if Canada, Russia or Denmark fail to accept a CLCS recommendation;
  4. a conflict over fisheries;
  5. temporary or permanent restrictions on the free use of the Northeast Passage, for instance if Russia charges disproportionately high fees, imposes unilateral conditions or gives privileged treatment to certain states;
  6. action by or against a non-state actor or NGO and possible incidents or sources of irritation, for example as a result of action by Western environmental activists;
  7. uncertainty as to Greenland’s position after it achieves full independence.

In order to preserve the vulnerable Arctic region, the AIV believes it is vital to keep all efforts focused on joint management and governance of the area. The development of a code of conduct for the Arctic Ocean, by analogy with the Polar Code, may encourage sustainable management. In the AIV’s view, the Arctic Council is still the most suitable regional consultative forum for issues in the Arctic itself. The Arctic countries cooperate constructively within the Council on many issues. However, the Arctic Council has a number of limitations. It does not have an executive organisation, its budget is limited, it is less resolute in making decisions than it might be, and security issues lie beyond its remit. The strict separation between the eight member states and the large number of observer states may not be viable in the long run, as some Arctic issues are also of direct concern to non-Arctic countries. All this limits the Council’s effectiveness, and the existing structure will eventually have to be adapted.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has scarcely concerned itself with the Arctic, even though five of its members have territory in the region. However, there are annual training courses and exercises, and within NATO there appears to be interest in developing civilian-military cooperation on disaster relief. Within the EU the main interest in the Arctic comes from the European Parliament, and to a lesser extent the Commission and the Council. The EU makes a useful contribution to disaster and accident prevention by using its civil defence mechanism, Galileo and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Initiative to monitor environmental, shipping and ice developments. Relations with Iceland and Greenland are also becoming more important because of their geographical location and the economic interests involved. Iceland may become a new transhipment hub, and Greenland has vast reserves of raw materials, include rare earth metals.

Geopolitical and strategic significance of the Arctic region
In recent years, interest in the Arctic has been increasing, for at least two reasons. First, as a relatively ungoverned and as yet not divided up part of the world in an increasingly multipolar age, the region may become a target for major world powers. Second, as a result of climate change, technological developments and market conditions (e.g. energy prices), the Arctic now seems to be losing its inaccessibility in a number of respects. Although these two ‘drivers’ are not by definition mutually reinforcing, there is a positive correlation between them. In short, the conditions for an ‘Arctic scramble’ are in place.

However, there are also moderating factors. First, geopolitical competition does not necessarily have to get out of hand. Even during the Cold War there were local arenas in which the security race was tempered: territorially, because certain areas were declared off-limits; functionally, because certain areas such as trade and sports were not altogether boycotted; and instrumentally, because some resources, even including weapon systems, were limited. Such self-control was always evident to some degree in Arctic waters. Second, in the specific case of the Arctic there is a modest but fairly successful tradition of ‘regiolateral’ governance. Third, the tendency towards moderation may be enhanced by the exceptional challenges that countries face in the Arctic. There is a clear premium on cooperation; the Arctic countries need each other to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.

Now that, the move towards a multipolar world is putting relations between the world’s major powers under pressure, competition between them could shift to the Arctic. Two of those powers have direct interests in the Arctic (Russia and the US as members of the Arctic Council) and a third and fourth are making their presence felt as global stakeholders (China and India as observers in the Arctic Council). However, the AIV believes the aforementioned moderating factors are so strong that fierce competition is unlikely. Even the newcomers (China, India and Japan) accept the existing institutional frameworks, without contesting the special position of the Arctic states. The Arctic is not a worldwide problem, a global Pandora’s box about to open.

The Netherlands and the Arctic
In 2013 the Dutch government published its policy framework ‘Nederland en de Poolgebieden 2011-2015’, and it plans to publish a new version in 2015. The Arctic is of importance to this country because of (1) its strategic significance, (2) its economic interests, (3) the Netherlands’ close bilateral relations with countries in the region, (4) the contribution this country can make to mitigating the impact of climate change and to research, and (5) the Netherlands’ traditional commitment to the international rule of law.

Extraction of oil and gas, mining of other raw materials and the new shipping routes may be of economic interest to the Netherlands. As this country’s national gas reserves decline, it is increasingly dependent on foreign oil and gas reserves, including those in the Arctic. Dutch companies have a good market position in sectors like land reclamation, maritime and offshore technology, gas and oil extraction, laying pipelines, shipbuilding and fisheries. The economic potential of the Arctic is of importance to the port of Rotterdam. The port is attractive to Russia as a central storage port for Russian oil. The Northeast Passage may become relevant for the transport of these products, but not for container transport or the transport of iron ore and coal. In that respect, the new shipping routes will for the time being remain insignificant. Moreover, developments in the Arctic may affect the Netherlands’ economic security. In view of this country’s future partial dependence on Arctic oil and gas, its interests in shipping and fisheries and the interests of the Dutch private sector and the port of Rotterdam, the Dutch government should remain actively involved in the economic development of the region and promote it through economic diplomacy.

The Netherlands is not an Arctic state, and hence has no direct say in developments in the region. However, it does have a special position in relation to Svalbard under the Svalbard Treaty. It has also been very active as an observer in the Arctic Council ever since the Council was set up. It contributes specific expertise to reports in various working groups. It can also continue to play a significant role in the Arctic, as it has no territorial claims, is small enough not to be a threat to other countries, has close bilateral relations with countries in the region and enjoys a good reputation in the field of international law.


The Netherlands’ Arctic strategy
In the AIV’s view, the new Arctic policy that the government intends to publish in 2015 should focus on promoting sustainable management of the Arctic. Given recent developments, the AIV believes that this policy should be stepped up. The region is now undergoing rapid changes, and the Netherlands may eventually have substantial interests there. Dutch efforts in the Arctic are currently fragmented. The AIV recommends that the government set up an interministerial committee on Arctic affairs, chaired by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The committee can coordinate the ecological, economic, research and foreign and security policy aspects of the Netherlands’ Arctic policy, and discuss the defence of strategic Dutch interests in the region. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Ministry of Defence could also participate in the committee.

The AIV also believes that, rather than revising the current policy framework, the government should publish a full-fledged Dutch Arctic strategy stating the Netherlands’ specific goals. The strategy should make a clear distinction between uniquely national interests and EU interests, and clearly define trans-Atlantic and northwest European interests. The Netherlands’ traditional security interests are not so different from those of its allies that it needs to pursue a course of its own. Its economic security interests are European rather than national. Its logistic and transport interests (and hence its energy policy and hinterland economic interests) are partly national (the Netherlands as a ‘mainport’) and partly European (cooperation between northwest European ports). Its national interest in promoting the international rule of law will be best served by continuing to support a predominant role for UNCLOS and the Arctic Council.

Researchers, the private sector and NGOs can be involved in the government’s Arctic policy by creating an Arctic partnership. In order to maintain the Netherlands’ position in Arctic consultative structures, sufficient funding must continue to be made available for Arctic research. The Netherlands can take initiatives to promote the coherence, legal validity and implementation of the various treaties on the Arctic. The AIV considers that the Netherlands should expand its dialogue with Greenpeace and other NGOs on developments in the Arctic since, as host country to these organisations, it has a major stake in managing tension in the region.

Foreign and security policy aspects
It would be a positive development if the Arctic were to become a specific area of focus within European foreign and security policy. The AIV believes that the EU should play a greater role there, given the major strategic and economic interests in the region and the EU’s potential contribution on climate issues, sustainable development and disaster relief. The AIV therefore advises the government to press for a full-fledged, coherent EU Arctic strategy. The Netherlands could take the initiative for this during the Dutch EU presidency in 2016, in consultation with like-minded member states. As support from member states that are also members of the Arctic Council seems indispensable, a special EU envoy for the Arctic could be proposed (to defend EU interests and coordinate the activities of the Commission, the High Representative, the member states and the private sector). There is room for improvement in coordination of the use of EU funding and Arctic programmes, through the BEAC, the Northern Dimension, Horizon 2020 and EU structural and investment funds. The Netherlands should where possible help to remove obstacles to observer status for the EU in the Arctic Council. The EU should also strengthen its ties with Greenland by expanding the EU-Greenland Partnership. The desirability and feasibility of furthering a partnership on critical materials on the basis of the 2012 declaration of intent should be examined. Cooperation with Iceland should also be stepped up.

The AIV currently sees no reason for NATO to play a greater role in the Arctic. Nevertheless, given its collective defence task (five of the eight Arctic states are NATO members), NATO should continue to hold regular exercises in the region. Given the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, it is advisable for NATO to keep a close eye on developments. It can use its knowledge and military capabilities to make a substantial contribution to civilian-military cooperation on disaster relief, emergency aid and SAR activities. NATO member states, together with other members of the Arctic Council, can also take confidence-building measures, such as exchanging information and observers during military activities in order to maximise transparency on the build-up of military capabilities in the region. Although economic and other forms of interdependence are in themselves no guarantee against military confrontation or other forms of conflict, the mutual dependence of Russia and other Arctic states and their cooperation in the Arctic have so far resulted in good relations. This will become more important as climate change makes the Arctic Ocean more accessible, thereby increasing Russia’s access to the oceans and enhancing its position as a maritime power.

The AIV believes the Arctic should be ‘rediscovered’ as a major area of focus in Dutch foreign and security policy. To defend its interests in the region, the Netherlands should strengthen its existing bilateral relations with Arctic countries and invest in bilateral relations with Iceland and Greenland (with Denmark’s knowledge). It should maintain its military-strategic knowledge of the area and continue its military cooperation projects there. This does not just entail continuing Dutch involvement in the annual NATO exercises in the region; existing cooperation with the NATO countries that are also members of the Arctic Council (Denmark, Norway, Canada and the US) requires continuing attention.

Management and governance
The AIV believes that, despite its loose structure, the Arctic Council will remain the most important regional consultative forum on the Arctic even in the long term. The Council’s scientific reports can acquire added value if they are also discussed with the UN and other relevant international organisations. The Arctic countries can also work towards more binding agreements like those on SAR and oil pollution. Establishing an executive organisation – perhaps by expanding the secretariat set up in Tromsø in 2013 – could help to ensure compliance with agreed measures. In its bilateral contacts with the US, the Netherlands should in the AIV’s view emphasise the importance of American ratification of UNCLOS, especially as the US is due to chair the Arctic Council in 2015.

Within the EU, the Netherlands could propose negotiations in the IMO on the regulation of Arctic shipping via the new routes, to the extent that it is not already regulated by UNCLOS, the Polar Code and other treaties. If the IMO discussions fail to yield results, the Arctic Council could play a part in settling disputes regarding the new shipping routes.

Given growing Asian interest in the Arctic and the need for European-Asian cooperation, the Netherlands could propose that the EU engage in dialogue with various Asian countries on strengthening Arctic governance in the interests of sustainable development.

Climate and environmental measures
To preserve the unique wildlife and biodiversity in the Arctic, based on the notion of a common heritage of mankind, the AIV believes that the Netherlands should work through the Arctic Council, the UN and the EU to advocate development of a code of conduct governing all issues relating to the Arctic Ocean that are not covered by the various coastal states’ EEZs. Although such a code of conduct is unlikely to appeal to the Arctic states, simply beginning negotiations may have a major symbolic value, in keeping with the spirit of Arctic cooperation. Consideration may eventually be given to an Arctic treaty. In the AIV’s view, the Netherlands should press for new binding international legislation on the extraction of Arctic oil and gas to regulate liability in the event of damage, SAR activities, evacuations and waste disposal. Such binding international legislation would help create a level playing field for all the companies operating in the region. The AIV also believes that the Netherlands should press for comprehensive, ecosystem-oriented management of the marine environment and the development of a network of protected marine areas in the Arctic.

The Netherlands is one of the countries to which rising sea levels pose a real and major threat. It is important that we can rely on sound long-term forecasts and continue to take the lead in research into rising sea levels and hence the mass balance of the Greenland icecap. The government should provide long-term funding for such research; this will also broaden the foundation for successful Dutch policy input into international forums like the Arctic Council. The AIV believes that the Netherlands should continue to make an active contribution to international climate negotiations.

Advice request

Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB  The Hague

Date  12 February 2014
Re      Request for advice on foreign and security policy issues relating to the Arctic Ocean

Dear Professor De Hoop Scheffer,

We are writing to ask your advice on foreign policy and security aspects of developments relating to the Arctic Ocean, as discussed on 8 April 2013 in the written consultations with the House of Representatives of the States General regarding the 2011-2015 policy framework on the Netherlands and the polar region.

International interest in the North Pole has increased dramatically in recent years. The debate on the significance of developments in and around the Arctic region is no longer limited to environmental issues and biodiversity. One of the effects of global climate change, which includes ice melting in and around the Arctic Ocean, is increased potential for economic activity in the region. The Arctic Ocean is now navigable for part of the year, and there are prospects of future access to the substantial gas and oil reserves there.

Opening up the region is of great economic and political importance to a number of Arctic states, including Canada and Russia. And security is an important condition for sustainable economic development. The eight Arctic countries are cooperating well on civil, ecological and maritime security in the Arctic Council. Ways of promoting these forms of security include reporting systems, safety standards for materials, and training requirements for Arctic personnel with respect to oil spill prevention, maritime surveillance, search and rescue (SAR) capacity and oil spill response.

In recent years the major Arctic countries (Canada, Russia, the United States and Norway) have published new Arctic policy frameworks. Canadian and Russian policy, in particular, prioritises heightened visibility and the exercise of territorial sovereignty. The Russian government has repeatedly spoken out about the importance of military protection in ensuring the widest possible access to oil and gas reserves in the Arctic. This military protection extends to the Northern Sea Route. Russia expects the Arctic region (including the Arctic Ocean) to be the main supplier of oil and gas to its economy by 2020.

Russian military presence in the region is therefore gradually being stepped up. Levels are considerably lower than those seen during the Cold War, and generally involve different types of units (such as a stronger coastguard and border patrols). Other Arctic countries are also placing specific emphasis on the security aspects of the Arctic Ocean.

It is vital that the increase in military presence take place transparently. Ongoing transparent cooperation between all actors in the region – the eight Arctic states, the EU, NATO, the Arctic Council (including non-Arctic observer states), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Nordic Council, the International Maritime Organization and organisations representing indigenous peoples – is important for peace and security.

One key question is whether successful cooperation within the Arctic Council, the main circumpolar consultative body, will be jeopardised as the economic ambitions of the larger Arctic states begin to take shape. The Arctic Council has so far carefully sidestepped a number of issues, including territorial claims to the Arctic region and Russia’s increased military presence and exclusive control of the Northern Sea Route. Most international observers, major companies and organisations such as NATO seem to be unconcerned about the increased risk of open conflict in the Arctic region and are keen to ensure that mistaken impressions do not lead to a needlessly heightened military presence in the region. After all, the way in which the Arctic opens up economically will have a wider impact than just on the Arctic states. Countries like China, Japan and South Korea are also increasingly interested in the Arctic region. Preventing open conflict in the Arctic is in the whole world’s interests.

These developments should prompt further development of the Netherlands’ policy framework for the polar region.1 This document is one element of the government’s policy on global issues, which includes strengthening the international legal order, promoting Dutch economic interests and focusing policy on major Global Public Goods (such as climate, biodiversity and energy). Developments in the Arctic region are being followed closely; the Netherlands is an Arctic Council observer.

Our International Security Strategy refers to economic security as an important element of Dutch international security policy. Developments in the Arctic Ocean may be directly relevant to the Netherlands’ economic security. The opening of new trade routes could have a considerable economic impact on Dutch ports. Other considerations include the involvement of the Dutch fishing industry, researchers and Dutch businesses operating abroad in the gas, oil and mineral extraction industries, as well as the cargo trade and tourism.

We would like you to address the following questions:

Geopolitical/brief outline of the changing landscape

  • What are the geopolitical implications of current and future changes concerning the Arctic Ocean? How could conflict scenarios arise?
  • Does the Arctic Council have a future as an interest group and negotiating forum for the Arctic states for managing the Northern Arctic Ocean?
  • What impact could future shifts in the balance of political power in the Arctic region have for the Arctic states, observer states, the NATO and the EU?

Security policy

  • Do the UN, NATO and the EU have a role to play alongside the Arctic Council in guaranteeing security and stability in the area?
  • If so, what is this role?
  • Do Arctic developments have consequences for the economic security of the Netherlands? If so, describe them.

Foreign policy

  • What interests of, opportunities for and threats to the Netherlands are associated with opening up the Arctic region? Should these interests, opportunities and threats lead the Netherlands to enhance our policy focus on the Arctic region?
  • If so, how could this be done effectively in light of the views and interests of other countries (Arctic states, new actors etc.)?

We look forward to receiving your report.

Yours sincerely,


Frans Timmermans
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert
Minister of Defence


1 Policy framework on the Netherlands and the polar region (in Dutch).

Government reactions

Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date    23 March 2015
Re       Government response to the AIV advisory report ‘The Future of the Arctic Region’

Dear Professor De Hoop Scheffer,

Please find below the government’s response to advisory report no. 90, ‘The Future of the Arctic Region: Cooperation or Confrontation?’ (October 2014). A copy of this letter will also be sent to the President of the Senate and the President of the House of Representatives.

The government would like to thank the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) for its very readable and useful report on the Arctic’s future. The report examines the Arctic’s strategic significance in the light of the growing exploitation of the region as a result of global warming, and considers how this may impact Dutch foreign and security policy. It deals, for example, with security issues in the region, the position of Arctic and non-Arctic countries and the role that the Netherlands, EU, UN and NATO can play. The government broadly agrees with the report’s description of developments, which goes further than the government requested, and also with its analysis and the implications it identifies for Dutch policy.

The government accepts the AIV’s general conclusion that the Dutch policy focus on the Arctic region should be enhanced, based on ecological, economic and security policy considerations. The AIV’s findings and recommendations will be taken into account when developing the Dutch circumpolar strategy for 2016-2020, scheduled for completion in mid-2015. The report provides valuable input for this strategy.

Like the AIV, the government recognises that interest in the Arctic region is growing. As a result of climate change, the region may be on the eve of a radical transformation. In addition to the emergence of new shipping routes and fishing grounds, the economic viability of mining natural resources is growing. Given the presence of substantial reserves of oil, gas and rare earth metals,1 there is a growing desire on the part of Arctic states to begin mining and extraction. It is impossible to predict how fast this development will proceed; this depends not only on changes in the region’s natural environment but also on national and international political decisions on the future of the Arctic region, developments in the global energy market and advances in technology. Clearly, Arctic states are claiming sovereign rights under international law based on geological research, and several countries – including non-Arctic countries – are expressing their intention to safeguard their own interests in the region. Against this background, international businesses and NGOs are playing an increasingly active part in the debate and non-Arctic countries, too, are announcing new Arctic strategies.

The AIV rightly highlights the potential risks arising from the growing interest and activities mentioned above. The vulnerability of the Arctic environment, the region’s significance for the global climate, its biodiversity and the way of life of its indigenous population are precisely the reasons why the Netherlands, through its observer status in the Arctic Council and other bodies, has for decades called for effective protection and management of the region. Funding from the Netherlands’ Arctic research, focusing on issues like rising sea levels, is yielding significant knowledge and has earned our country a certain influence among the Arctic countries. The government will continue these efforts and notes that, in the long run, resource exploitation – on which the Arctic states may take their own decisions on the basis of their sovereign rights – offers opportunities for both the region itself and the Dutch economy. The Dutch private sector can contribute to the sustainable development of the Arctic region, as it possesses Arctic expertise that is held in high international regard. The report suggests that the Netherlands may need to reassess the balance of ecological, economic and security interests in the Arctic region. The government will return to this issue when formulating the Netherlands’ polar strategy for 2016-2020. What is certain is that the pillars of the new strategy will be sustainable management and governance of the Arctic region, international law (including law of the sea), strengthening international cooperation, and climate considerations. The government therefore endorses the AIV’s recommendation that promoting sustainable management of the Arctic should remain paramount.

The security policy angle is also of growing importance. In the light of the changing global balance of power, we should not allow the region to become a geopolitical football. After all, opposing interests may lead to rising tensions, especially given the lack of a regionally anchored institutional framework for mitigating conflicts. Russia’s recent actions are a particular cause for concern. The region is not being militarised as yet. Nevertheless, the strengthening of Russian bases in the north and the sharp rise in Russian military activities in this region need to be monitored. The government shares the AIV’s view that, in the present circumstances, assigning NATO a more active role in the Arctic region is not a logical step and that the EU can, for the time being, serve as the main avenue for protecting the security interests and other interests recognised by the Netherlands. Changes in the security situation may of course result in a different assessment.

The report rightly points to the significance of NATO’s collective defence task, since five of the eight Arctic states are NATO allies (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and the United States). The NATO Readiness Action Plan, adopted at the recent NATO summit in Wales, is also relevant in this regard, as it lists measures enabling a swift, flexible and effective response to threats on the periphery of NATO territory.

The report notes that Asian countries, especially China, are making their presence felt in the Arctic region, especially with a view to safeguarding their own present or future interests. The report points out that they are doing this both through existing international legislation and bodies and by improving bilateral relations with Arctic states. As the government stated in its response to the AIV advisory report ‘Asia on the Rise’, the Netherlands wants to engage China wherever possible on global issues that transcend economic interests. These include environmental issues, sustainable development and  shipping routes that are safe for humans and the environment. The Netherlands will promote broad engagement with China and other Asian countries on Arctic issues, embedded in existing international structures and agreements and in a spirit of cooperation. It will raise this matter in both bilateral and multilateral dialogues with Asian countries.

The AIV remarks that it would be a positive development if the Arctic were to become a specific area of focus within European foreign and security policy, and calls on the government to press for a full-fledged EU Arctic strategy. The government recognises the importance of more active and more focused EU involvement and will pursue this goal. The operationalisation of the EU’s maritime security strategy and the anticipated updating of the analysis of the security environment by the new High Representative Federica Mogherini may provide suitable opportunities. The question of which unit within the EU should be responsible for Arctic policy is also worthy of attention. This is no simple matter; various policy areas – climate, environment, energy, shipping, research and security – are relevant to the Arctic region. The EU also has three Arctic member states,2 for which Arctic policy is domestic policy, unlike in other EU member states. Moreover, these three countries are members of the Arctic Council. Seven EU countries have observer status3 of this Council, a status for which the EU as a whole has also applied.4 In the government’s opinion, the appointment of a special EU envoy for the Arctic, as proposed by the AIV, would not deliver sufficient added value at present. If the EU is granted observer status in the Arctic Council, the government will reconsider whether the appointment of an envoy for the Arctic is justified, in the light of applicable EU policy and the budgets available.

Furthermore, during its upcoming presidency of the Arctic Council, the United States intends to place limited reform of the Council high on the agenda, given the increasing number of observers. The government does not believe it would be opportune to expand the Arctic Council’s tasks to include resolving disputes on shipping routes, as proposed by the AIV, since this task involves weighing up the interests of both coastal and flag states, whereas only the interests of coastal states are represented in the Council.

The Netherlands will continue to pursue its policy objectives through, inter alia, the Arctic Council, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Maritime Organization and the EU, and by maintaining good relations with Arctic states. It will continue playing an active role in the dialogue between – and with – Dutch knowledge institutions, NGOs and the private sector. The government believes that the Netherlands’ relatively strong position in the Arctic should at least be consolidated in order to monitor developments from close by and to ensure that the Netherlands is not taken by surprise by ecological, economic, security-related or other political developments. The government therefore fully endorses the AIV’s recommendation on an integrated and coherent Arctic policy, which includes security aspects. One way of achieving this is to modify the form and structure of the existing Interministerial Polar Committee.

As shown by the above, the AIV advisory report is of great value to the government and for  future Dutch polar strategy. The jointly organised seminar on 28 November 2014, attended by two members of the House of Representatives, also yielded significant insights for this strategy. With over 100 participants, it exceeded expectations. This once again highlighted the increased interest in the region and underscored a large proportion of the AIV’s conclusions.

Yours sincerely,

Bert Koenders
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert
Minister of Defence


1 Also known as ‘rare earths’, which is a more appropriate term because they include more than just metals.
2 Denmark, Finland and Sweden.
3 France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom.
4 The Netherlands supports the EU application while continuing to retain its own observer status.
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