While President Donald Trump's interest in buying Greenland grabbed headlines recently, there's a largely overlooked, much more serious territorial issue in the Arctic: Russia's next chess move aimed at asserting ownership of the North Pole.

On Saturday, Russia launched a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon from a submarine near the North Pole. That's strategic and quite serious, adding another dimension to a region that's heating up in more ways than one.

As the year-round sea ice continues to melt for the first time in more than 100,000 years, critical shorter shipping routes are opening. Vast valuable resources are in the Arctic region, such as rare earth minerals needed for modern electronics; there are also significant oil and natural gas deposits and the rich Arctic fisheries.

Ocean territories are defined primarily by a combination of three considerations: land masses; any shallow adjacent areas, such as a continental shelf; and exclusive economic zones, which usually extend 200 miles from the coast. It gets complicated where those lines from different nations overlap. The intersecting lines at the North Pole are a prime potential place for territorial disputes. Russia, Canada, the United States (via Alaska), Norway and Denmark all have some legal claim to a wedge of the "Arctic pie." The rest of the international community also has a claim to inclusive uses of that portion of the Arctic Ocean.

To deal with these converging boundaries in a hostile operating environment, nations created the Arctic Council in 1996 via the Ottawa Declaration. In addition to the five nations that connect at the North Pole, Finland, Iceland and Sweden complete the group of eight. Representatives of indigenous peoples, observer nations and nongovernmental organizations also participate.

Increasingly, China has argued that it's a "near-Arctic state." China already has mining camps in Greenland, so its interest may primarily be access to the resources. But it could also be a gambit to get a seat at the table, perhaps even a strategy to displace U.S. presence there eventually. (Perhaps that could explain Trump's interest in buying the island from Denmark.)

Russia, for its part, has taken the stance for years that it has special claim to the North Pole. The missile launch this week is just its latest attempt to assert sovereignty. In August 2007, Russia planted its "flag" on the seabed at the North Pole. And earlier this year, it put an anti-missile defense system in the region. It has also expanded and upgraded its military capabilities in northern Siberia.

Russia's claim is based on ambiguous issues about water depths (bathymetry) that connect the nation to the pole by a massive, relatively shallow underwater feature called the Lomonosov Ridge. It's dubious that the rules on sovereign territorial limits — which come from the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea established in 1982 — actually grant Russia that claim. But complicating matters is the fact that the United States has still not joined the convention due to petty politics in the Senate, where a half-dozen members have thwarted attempts to join, although most senators support it.

In any case, there is little doubt that Russia wants to redraw the territorial boundaries of the Arctic. What's unclear is how far it is willing to push the issue. Russia already dominates physical presence in the Arctic Circle. It has by far the largest fleet of icebreakers and other ships capable of operating there.

This makes the Arctic a dangerous, high-stakes game of strategy. Imagine how the world would look if Russia seized and defended the North Pole as its territory, perhaps erecting some kind of platform or artificial island to rise above the surface. The latest missile launch only makes the region more dynamic and fraught.

All nations have an interest in the "high Arctic" due to implications for the global supply chain. Because there is no land near the North Pole, this is an especially ambiguous and fluid situation. And that's why world leaders must resolve it at a negotiating table or international forum, rather than with warships and missiles.

Whether this is seen as a game of chess, or an aggressive bear wanting to mark its territory, the developments in the Arctic region are worth the world's attention. The first thing the United States should do is join the Law of the Sea convention as a full participant so that we not only have a powerful seat at the table, but also so that we can assert our own claims to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic region and elsewhere off our coasts.

 

John Englander is an oceanographer and author of "High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis." He wrote this for The Washington Post.