T he Arctic Ocean has until recently received about as much attention from politicians, economists and foreign policy experts as the back of the moon. But before long, thanks to global warming, the ocean may turn into a new economic frontier. About 20-30 per cent of the world's likely but undiscovered oil reserves lie beneath it. High energy prices and advances in ship design, drilling equipment and remote sensing combine to open up opportunities to exploit these reserves and ship freight between the Pacific and the North Atlantic via the Arctic. The five Arctic Ocean states (the US, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia) are boosting military capacity to assert competing territorial claims.
Opening the northern route is attractive for reasons of both distance and security. Shanghai to Rotterdam via the north-east sea route across the top of Russia is almost 1,000 miles shorter than via Suez. The Suez and Panama canals are already operating at maximum capacity and, while they are to be expanded, economic development in south and south-east Asia alone will take up the extra capacity. Additional freight will have either to go round the Cape of Good Hope or take the much shorter trip through the Arctic. China is especially keen to open the northern route with giant container ships.