The Kigluaik Mountains are visible as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian tanker Renda near Nome Jan. 13, 2012.

The Kigluaik Mountains are visible as the Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice for the Russian tanker Renda near Nome Jan. 13, 2012. Petty Officer 2nd Class Charly Hengen.

The Arctic Could Be the Next South China Sea, Says Coast Guard Commandant

Rich with energy resources, minerals and strategic positioning, the warming Arctic is ripe for territorial disputes, Adm. Zukunft warns.

No one's creating and arming islands in the Arctic today, but that doesn't mean territorial disputes couldn't soon heat up in those waters, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard warned today.

“As I look at what is playing out in the Arctic, it looks eerily familiar to what we’re seeing in the East and South China Sea,” Adm. Paul Zukunft said Tuesday at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

That means first, audacious territorial claims, Zukunft said: “Russia has claimed most of the Arctic Ocean, all the way up to the North Pole and as a signatory of the Law of the Sea Convention has filed this claim.”

The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, is the 1982 treaty that established nations’ maritime rights and responsibilities. It’s also the agreement under which the Philippines brought suit against China for violating its territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea. Last year, an international court rejected China’s expansive nine-dash line claims.

Related: Beijing Is Setting the Stage for War in the South China Sea

Also Read: How Russia Could Annex the Arctic

The admiral noted more Chinese maritime traffic in the far north.

“The Snow Dragon…is on her way up to the Arctic from China,” he said. “And they routinely stop and do research in our extended continental shelf. They’ve established a pattern.”

That’s a big deal because the U.S.’s extended continental shelf holds up to “13% of the world’s oil reserves, about a third of the world’s gas reserves, and about a trillion dollars worth of rare earth metals” that technological advancements will soon make economically feasible to harvest, Zukunft said.

The U.S. is one of a small group of countries — others are North Korea, Libya and Turkey — that have not ratified UNCLOS. The treaty grants countries exclusive rights to harvest minerals and materials from underneath the seafloor of their continental shelves.

So a clear first step to avoiding an Arctic repeat of the gradual escalation in the South China Sea would be to ratify the agreement, Zukunft said. “I cannot state more profoundly that we are not in the best of company in the non-ratifiers and it’s time for us to join the club and ratify the Law of the Sea Convention.”

Ultimately, however, the commandant said the Coast Guard needs adequate funds to replace aging icebreakers and other ships to back up the territorial claims it would file once it sat down at the UNCLOS table.

“Obviously, we’ve seen what’s happened in the East/South China Sea — even though the UN tribunal found in favor of the Philippines, it has not altered the behavior of China,” he said. “If you don’t have the means to enforce this aspect of the law, then what you really have is nothing more than a paper dragon to counter a Snow Dragon.