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Arctic warms up for Russia and Norway

All manner of things unfreeze when the ice melts. This week a remarkable thaw took place in Oslo when the visiting Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an agreement with his Norwegian host , Jens Stoltenberg. The agreement ended an Arctic maritime border dispute that has been deep frozen for four decades.

The dispute, over the boundary in the Barents Sea, was an obstacle to both countries’ ambitions to exploit what they believe are the vast oil and gas reserves beneath the Arctic ocean. The “Agreement on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean” delineates the disputed boundary by dividing the area in two and opens the way for a new round of drilling in the fragile arctic environment.

Who blinked in this 40-year stand-off? The evidence points to Russia, which once seemed to think it could dominate the Arctic region and has hammered the point home over the years in a series of undiplomatic incidents with its Norwegian neighbours. The most recent – and comic – was the planting of a Russian flag under the Arctic ice in 2007, a stunt that lost some of its credibility when a Russian teenager noticed that the official “film” of the submarine episode was actually footage from the Hollywood movie Titanic.

This week, the talk was much more conciliatory as prime minster Medvedev enthused over the prospects of cooperation in the exploitation of natural resource.

Not everyone is delighted, though. Arctic drilling is a sensitive issue for environmentalists and the WWF, which is campaigning for new rules to protect the changing Arctic environment (http://en.rian.ru/Environment/20100426/158751157.html) has already voiced its objections. Many Norwegian opposition politicians agree. Norway prides itself on its environmental record and 99 per cent of its own electricity is clean hydro power.

But it also has a huge offshore oil and gas industry and neither the Norwegian nor the Russian government believes that a new international regime is required to regulate the exploitation of the Arctic.

China, which has applied for observer status on the Arctic Council and follows developments at the North Pole with some attention, will be watching closely. If the polar ice goes on melting, China could ship goods to Europe via the Arctic, saving some 4000 miles on the journey –a small environmental benefit that might go a little way to balancing the potential damage of oil and gas exploration.

Read more about China's Arctic policies in a three-part article by Linda Jakobson

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