A retired Rear Admiral of the Chinese PLA Navy, Yin Zhuo, caused a major stir in March 2010, when in a speech to the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference, he declared: â€œThe Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.â€ China, he said, must also have a share of the region's resources. Resources, reserves The five nations which ring the Arctic Ocean, namely the U.S. Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, disagree, though they themselves have competing territorial claims. The stakes are enormous: The Arctic Circle encloses 21 million square kilometres of land and 13 million sq.km of mostly ice-bound seas. By way of comparison, India's total land area is 3.3 million sq.km. It is estimated that the region may hold over 40 per cent of the current global reserves of oil and gas. There may also be significant reserves of coal, zinc and silver. As global warming causes the ice to melt, even for limited periods, the commercial exploitation of these resources is becoming feasible. In January 2011, the multinational oil major, BP, concluded a strategic alliance with the Russian State Company, Rosneft, to exploit the hydrocarbon resources in the Russian Arctic. Arctic shipping has become a reality in the summer months. The Northwest passage, mainly along Canada's Arctic Coast, will link Far East Asia with North America, while the North-East Passage, mainly along Russia's Arctic shoreline, would provide an alternate route between Asia and North America, but also between Europe and Asia. These Arctic routes, which used to be the stuff of fables in the 18th and 19th centuries, will cut global shipping routes by several thousand kilometres. For example, the Arctic route from Rotterdam (Holland) to San Francisco will be 4,000 km shorter than the existing route. This route has already been used in the past two summers by commercial shipping. As the density of Arctic shipping increases, so will the geopolitical importance of the Northern Tier countries. The Arctic region is now becoming a popular tourist destination. In 2010, over 50,000 tourists sailed the pristine waters of a hitherto forbidden zone. The Antarctic It is, therefore, easy to see why the countries that lie on the Arctic littoral, are keen to monopolise the resources of the region, shutting out any interlopers including China. The sharpening tensions arising out of long-standing territorial disputes among the Arctic countries are also a consequence of the prospects of significant economic and strategic gains that could be made from exploiting the locational advantages and potential resources of this vast frozen expanse. The current scramble one witnesses in the Arctic is in sharp contrast to the relative tranquillity which prevails over the opposite end of the Earth, the Antarctic. In a rare example of cooperation among the major powers, the Antarctica Treaty was concluded in 1959, permitting only research and scientific activity in the vast icy continent, shelving for the time being, any competing territorial claims. The Antarctica is a continent, unlike the Arctic, which is an ocean, but it is also covers a vast area, approximately 14 million sq.km, covered in a thick layer of ice. The Antarctic, like the Arctic, is also estimated to hold vast reserves of hydrocarbons and rare minerals. Global warming is also leading to the melting of the permanent ice in the southern summer and there could well be a fraying of the compromise arrived at among the Antarctic Treaty partners. Territorial claims, which have been frozen for the duration of the Treaty, may well be revived. What happens in the Arctic may well trigger a negative change in the Antarctic. Is the world on the threshold of a new geopolitical contest, centred on the warming waters of the Arctic? If the shipping routes through the Arctic become more dense, the countries that lie astride these routes, will gain in importance. The exploitation of the rich resources of the region will add to the wealth and economic significance of the already affluent U.S., Canada and northern European countries. Russia may be the most prominent beneficiary of this shift, not only because it occupies the largest part of the Arctic, but also because it has the most experience in dealing with the harsh conditions that will continue to prevail in the region. The relative importance of countries that currently dominate global shipping routes will decline; the strategic chokepoints of the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Bosphorous and the Malacca Straits, would lose much of their economic importance. The distribution of the world's critical resources would be drastically rearranged, giving greater leverage to the U.S., Canada, Russia and northern Europe. The geopolitical centre of gravity may well swing back from the Asia-Pacific to the trans-Atlantic.