The region is evidently being recognized internationally as worthy of attention and investment, as evidenced by the admission of six new non-Arctic nations to the council as observers: Japan, China, South Korea, India, Italy, and Singapore. The fact that these countries see the value and opportunities in the Arctic makes it even more important that the US participate fully in the region’s development, leading international policy decisions relating to the Arctic.
It can begin leading by ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. While no nation currently “owns” the North Pole, the Law of the Sea treaty affords each of the five countries that surround it an exclusive economic zone out to 200 nautical miles from shore. The natural resources within a nation’s zone belong to that nation alone.
Parties to the treaty can also lay claim to an extended area out to 350 nautical miles. If the US Senate were to ratify the treaty – and the US is the only Arctic nation that has not ratified – America could lay claim to an area of the Arctic twice the size of California. Ownership in the Arctic is becoming increasingly important as more and more nations look to the region to meet their energy and economic needs, and as a viable shipping route.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the minimum sea-ice extent of the Arctic polar ice cap reached a record low last year – half what it was in the 1979-2000 period. That reduced coverage will allow for increased circumpolar maritime traffic via sea lanes that are open for longer periods of time. Shipping cargo from Europe to Asia via the Arctic can shave thousands of miles, multiple days, and enormous expenses from the traditional route through the Suez Canal.