Blog: Oasis No More? Svalbard and Contested Arctic Strategies

A bust of Roald Amundsen in the centre of the settlement at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard. (Marc Lanteigne)

Although there remains much conventional wisdom which still considers the Arctic to be only loosely situated within international law, and potentially subject to an inevitable competition over influence and resources, like any other body of water the legal framework of the Arctic, (including the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea) or UNCLOS, is extensive and robust.

That does not, however, grant these frameworks freedom from complete immunity to challenges or reinterpretation. The islands of Svalbard, north of Norway, are fast becoming a case example of a collision between traditional laws and norms on one side, and modern strategic realities on the other.

The Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Treaty of 1920 recognized the islands as part of the Kingdom of Norway, granting the country sovereignty over the archipelago, but also permitting other Treaty signatories to engage in economic and scientific activities there. Actions taken for ‘warlike purposes’ in Svalbard are forbidden under Article IX of the Treaty, including a ban on naval bases. However, the specifics of that article have been open to interpretation, as according to the Norwegian government the need to protect the sovereignty of the islands necessitates defensive policies and civilian policing, including via the Norwegian Coast Guard. Under this legal structure, during the past century the islands have evolved as a hub for various areas of international civilian research on the Arctic and its environment.

There are currently forty-six parties to the Treaty, including the United States, China, Russia, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Japan, Poland, South Korea and the United Kingdom. The government of Türkiye (Turkey) agreed [in Turkish] to become a party as of October 2023, although there were previous signs that local media were overestimating the rights the country had to access resources on the islands, given Norway’s right to regulate economic activities on environmental grounds. North Korea became an unlikely signatory in 2016.

China’s Yellow River Station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard (Marc Lanteigne)

Roughly every decade, of late, the Norwegian government has published a White Paper on Svalbard policy, with the previous document released in 2016. Much has changed, however, in the realm of Arctic security over the past eight years. The deteriorated relations between Russia and the West since the full Russian invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022, the expansion of NATO into the Arctic with the membership of Finland and Sweden, and the slowdown of Arctic Council activities in light of the precarious state of communications with Moscow, have all contributed to concerns about the ‘return’ of hard power politics and zero-sum games in the far north. Thus, the publication of the newest Svalbard White Paper last month was sure to draw both national and international scrutiny.

This revised White Paper [pdf], ‘Meld. St. 26 (2023-2024) – Melding til Stortinget’ (‘Report to Parliament’) acknowledged, without specifics, the changed security milieu surrounding the islands, stating in Section 1.1 that ‘The security policy situation globally and in our immediate area is characterized by greater seriousness and greater unpredictability than when the previous Svalbard report was presented in 2016, and an increased geopolitical tension which originates outside the northern areas are now also felt in local areas.’

Accordingly, the overreaching tone of the document was stressing the need for Norway to strengthen its sovereignty over the islands. The main topics cited were improved government control over infrastructure and energy policies (with a focus on developing renewables), the need for population regulation to prevent further local environmental strains, and the wider issues of climate change threats. As the paper was being released, Norway’s Justice and Public Security Minister, Emilie Enger Mehl, commented that ‘the governance of Svalbard must continue to be predictable and maintain a steady course.’ This at a time when predictability is becoming rare coin in the far north.

Norway urged to assert control over international research activities

Another theme in the latest Svalbard paper which, although seemingly very innocuous, carries a great deal of political weight, is the call for the Norwegian government to exercise greater sovereignty over research activities on the islands. For decades there have been extensive domestic and international research programmes in Svalbard, heavily concentrated in the community of Ny-Ålesund, including via facilities overseen by institutions including those from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. The Polar Research Institute of China opened [in Chinese] its Yellow River Station [in Chinese] (Huanghe zhan 黄河站) at the site in late 2003, and India’s Himadri Station has been operational since 2008.

India’s Himadri Station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard (Marc Lanteigne)

Although Arctic research in the physical sciences is permitted by Treaty parties, there have been differences between Oslo and other governments over whether research outside of the physical sciences should be allowed, and these rifts have started to become more pronounced.

In early 2019, The Norwegian Research Council, which advises the country’s governments on research strategy and planning, published a research strategy [pdf] for Ny-Ålesund. Amongst the plan’s statements was the point, in Section 4, that ‘research is to be within the natural sciences,’ with the one exception being research into local cultural heritage. This statement has since been interpreted in Norway as an informal rule that research at the site is to be restricted to the natural sciences, implying that Norwegian authorities have the right, based on sovereignty rights granted in the Treaty, to interdict social science research.

This stipulation is only loosely based on the original 1920 Treaty, however. Reflecting the times, Article V in that document affirmed that Treaty parties ‘recognise the utility of establishing an international meteorological station in the territories.’ The Article also stated, ‘Conventions shall also be concluded laying down the conditions under which scientific investigations may be conducted in the said territories.’

Some governments, including those of Russia and China, have been critical of these limitations, and have accused the Norwegian government of overstepping the Treaty by setting what they view as artificial restrictions on research parameters. The Norwegian government, for its part, has sought to better supervise research on Svalbard at a time when many questions regarding the rise of ‘dual use’ data gathering, (i.e. research which could be used for both civilian and military purposes, and also could be used in a manner representing a threat to national interests), are proliferating in security policy circles, including in the Arctic.

Moscow pushes back 

Russian authorities have pushed back on Norway’s stipulations regarding research, and this has been one factor of Moscow’s ongoing complaints that Russia’s legal rights regarding the islands were being curtailed [in Norwegian] by Norway. These differences were only magnified after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, with one incident taking place in December last year when the Russian government protested restrictions on research activities by a Murmansk-based research vessel, the Dalniye Zelentsy (Дальние Зеленцы) near Svalbard, which resulted in the vessel being barred from the islands’ territorial waters out of concerns that its research could have dual use implications.

China’s Beijing-based Arctic and Antarctic Administration [in Chinese] (国家海洋局极地考察办公室 Guojia haiyang jujidi kaocha banggongshi) was quick to take exception [in Norwegian] to the de facto ban on social science research at Ny-Ålesund, arguing that this restriction was not compatible with the terms of the 1920 Treaty, especially the preamble which promises an ‘equitable regime’ amongst participating parties. Chinese assertiveness on this matter was seen in Norway as a shift away [in Norwegian] from the country’s more muted approach to Svalbard engagement, and also taking place at a time when Beijing was seeking to expand its own Arctic interests, including by commencing work since 2017 towards constructing a ‘Polar Silk Road’ as the northern tier of Beijing’s Belt and Road economic development initiatives.

As well, as a 2021 article in the journal Marine Policy explained, China’s development as a great power, and its growing presence in the Arctic, have made the country not only more interested in becoming a regional stakeholder, but also in developing as an overall ‘interpretive power’, with the capability to construe international laws more in line with its own interests. China’s pushing back on Norwegian interpretations of the Spitsbergen Treaty is an example of this. A more recent (September 2024) article in Marine Policy described China’s concerns about Norwegian rule-setting over Svalbard as a reaction to Oslo seeking to ‘improve research coordination’ on the islands. However, contemporary Chinese studies have suggested a more specific set of grievances in Beijing regarding Norwegian Svalbard regulations.

For example, a 2020 article in Pacific Journal (太平洋学报) argued that Norway was using its role as guarantor of Svalbard to restrict activities of other signatories, as well as the tendency of Norway to assume a literal interpretation of the 1920 Treaty which restricts activities of other signatories. The study instead called upon Norway to take an ‘evolutionary approach’ (进化解释 jinhua jieshi) to the Treaty which reflects modern concerns. A 2021 study in the journal Contemporary Law Review (当代法学) called into question whether Norway was using environmental regulations as a way of micromanaging economic policies on Svalbard, as well as using restrictions on scientific activities to disadvantage other parties. All of which were seen by this study as contravening the ‘equitable system’ (公平制度 gongping zhidu) structure promised in the original Treaty. China’s 2018 government White Paper on the Arctic also noted that as a Treaty signatory, the country gained ‘the right under conditions of equality,’ to engage in both research and commercial activities.

Entrance to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), Longyearbyen (Marc Lanteigne)

Attempts by the Norwegian government to increase regulation of research activities in Svalbard is not a new phenomenon. Oslo had been concerned about ensuring that it had proper oversight of research on the islands. Article 3.2.6 of the 2016 White Paper stressed that ‘Nationals of the parties to the Treaty have neither a right nor equal right to conduct research activities in the archipelago,’ and that ‘research activities in Svalbard must be conducted in line with relevant Norwegian regulations, including the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act’.

Article 8.2.2 of the document also noted ‘the growing international interest in research in Svalbard contributes to knowledge development in the Arctic. The objective is for this to happen in accordance with Norwegian research policy, which places emphasis on international research and infrastructure cooperation and on open access to data and publications.’

The follow-up 2024 paper only doubled down on these regulations, with the report (Article 5.4.1), stating ‘Research activity and educational provision must be based on the natural advantages that Svalbard’s location provides, i.e. that climate, nature and the environment must be focus areas. The activity must be of such a nature that it can only or best be carried out on Svalbard.’

The paper’s section on research activities [in Norwegian] confirmed that higher education in the islands would be continue to provided solely by the Norwegian state-owned University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), which has operated in the capital of Longyearbyen since 1993. As well, the White Paper announced the planned creation of a dedicated Svalbard research office directed by the Norwegian Research Council and the Norwegian Polar Institute in order to facilitate ‘clearer’ research activities on the islands and to provide annual reporting on local research endeavours.

Russia floats idea of alternative scientific base

While Norway has been seeking to clarify and assert its rights in Svalbard, since last year Russia has been seeking, as part of its larger plan to develop alternative Arctic partners to potentially open an alternative scientific base at the sparsely populated Russian town of Pyramiden on Svalbard, perhaps as early as the end of 2024 [in Russian], with possible branches elsewhere, including the other main Russian town on Svalbard, Barentsburg.

Moscow has invited its partners within the recently expanded BRICS group to potentially join this project, and it was underscored that education and training would be offered there, thus potentially pushing against Norwegian regulations that UNIS be the sole provider of higher education on the islands, and that disciplines beyond natural sciences could also be studied.

Russian settlement at Pyramiden (Marc Lanteigne)

In addition to the original members of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the group added [pdf] new members at the beginning of this year (Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and potentially Saudi Arabia), with other governments such as Malaysia and Thailand now also expressing interest in joining. In mid-June, a BRICS+ working group meeting was held in Murmansk, with scientists from member states discussing [in Russian] maritime and polar research, which could act as a precursor to the Pyramiden plans, and Moscow’s turning towards the BRICS group as an alternative set of regional partners is in keeping with the Vladimir Putin regime’s March 2023 foreign policy concept paper, which included [in Russian] a call for ‘mutually beneficial cooperation with non-Arctic states pursuing a constructive policy towards Russia and interested in international activities in the Arctic.’ 

It is not yet certain which countries will ultimately take part in the Russia research plans from Svalbard, or the eventual timetable for the opening of the facilities. Nonetheless, these potential facilities underscore the fragile nature of the legal and political structures on the islands, and the fact that Svalbard can no longer be as insulated from the growing geopolitical stresses facing the Arctic as it once was.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: CSIS warning Inuit leaders about covert foreign investment in Arctic, documents show, CBC News

Russia: Moscow hoists Soviet flags at Svalbard, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Moscow continues to push for BRICS science centre at Svalbard, The Independent Barents Observer

Marc Lanteigne

Marc Lanteigne is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tromso - The Arctic University of Norway, is the chief editor of the Arctic news blog Over the Circle, and is a regular commentator on polar regional affairs.

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