Strategic military considerations and the summit talks between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union have drawn congressional attention to five-year-old negotiations over a disputed boundary in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia. And despite the current world oil glut, the possibility of vast offshore oil reserves in the area has provided an incentive to pursue the boundary negotiations, which began in 1981 after a century in which the issue lay dormant.
Legislation mandating that no US claims be relinquished without a ratified treaty is before Congress, and last week the Alaska Legislature passed a resolution requesting that the US reassert jurisdiction over the disputed territory. Also under scrutiny is ownership of five Arctic islands placed in the District of Alaska by US Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1981 but subsequently claimed by the Soviet Union.
``There is far more at stake here than the ownership of five small islands covered with ice and snow. What is at stake is how, under the rules of international law, the US will define its Outer Continental Shelf,'' maintains Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. ``Moreover, the islands lie in the Arctic between the Soviet Union and the North Pole. If we surrender the islands to Soviet sovereignty, we may well be surrendering control of the Arctic Ocean to Soviet nuclear submarines.''
Senator Helms introduced a bill in the Senate (SR 279) last December. Rep. Mark D. Siljander (R) of Michigan, introduced a similar bill (HR 3766) in the House in November. He says it has subsequently picked up 18 cosponsors.
``My legislation simply requires that none of the five Alaskan islands, fishing zones, or oil beds shall be handed over to the Soviets without a treaty,'' Mr. Siljander explains.
Talks on the dispute began quietly in 1981 after exploration by American oil firms showed that the Navarin Basin in the Bering Sea had the potential of 1.1 billion barrels in oil reserves.
The US-Soviet boundary, which straddles this discovery, was drawn in 1867 in the process of completing the sale by czarist Russia of Alaska to the United States. It was done without benefit of modern cartographic techniques.
For the Soviets the negotiations have an important national-security application. Moscow is engaged in virtually identical talks with Norway over a disputed stretch of the Barents Sea which controls access routes to the Soviet Union's most important naval base. American officials are convinced that the Soviets are determined not to yield in talks with the US because they want to avoid setting a precedent that could be applied to the Norwegian talks.
Top-secret US-USSR boundary talks have been held on five occasions since 1981.
John Negroponte of the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs is scheduled to meet with Soviet representatives again this month.
Mr. Negroponte's press secretary, Scott Thayer, has no comment on legislation concerning this subject but maintains Negroponte's current mission is ``to discuss a treaty that already exists'' -- that is, the Convention of 1867 that set the boundaries of the Alaska purchase.
The Soviets now argue that the course should be plotted on the basis of a Mercator projection (a method of mapmaking in which areas become increasingly distorted as one moves toward the poles).
The Americans are holding out for arcs of great circles, the method airline pilots use to plot transpolar flight. Using the two systems causes both sides to claim an 18,000-square-mile segment of the territory in dispute.
To strengthen its position, the US included the disputed area when it opened the Navarin to oil leasing in 1984.
The contested claims brought $108,174,000 in bids out of a total of $631,200,000 for the entire basin. But no drilling has been allowed, and the Department of Interior put bid deposits of $21.6 million in escrow.
Pressure for settlement has intensified with the apparent success of oil exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and a growing realization that the bulk of the world's untapped oil reserves may lie within this region. Dome Petroleum Company of Canada has estimated oil reserves in the Arctic area at 1.1 billion barrels.
The Russian-American boundary north of Bering is even more vaguely defined than that in the Navarin, and ownership of five islands that might serve as oil bases here has never been clearly established.
Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea was discovered and claimed by an American, Thomas DeLong, in 1867. Capt. Cavin L. Hooper of the US Revenue Service formally raised the American flag there in 1881.
Canadian explorer Vilhajalmur Stefansson, who unsuccessfully attempted to colonize Wrangel in 1921 and 1923, sold his interest to the Lomen family of Nome, Alaska.
In 1924, Soviets imprisoned 14 of Lomen's employees who were trapping there and confiscated their property. Twelve survivors were eventually returned to the US, but in 1926, the Soviet Union formally moved to claim this 2,800-square-mile province.
The Lomens' claims were upheld by the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission in 1959, but the State Department negotiated a protocol agreement to transplant Alaskan musk ox to ``Soviet Island Wrangel'' in 1974, bypassing Congress.
Also cloudy is the status of Bennett, Henrietta, and Jeannette Islands in the East Siberian Sea, discovered in 1881, and Herald Island, adjacent to Wrangel. As with Wrangel, the US has never officially relinquished its title to these territories, but Soviet occupancy has not been challenged. State Department spokesmen say they have not ``found any evidence that the US has ever formally asserted claim to any of the islands.'' This is seen by some observers as evidence that US negotiators may accept the Russian position.
The disputed 18,000-square-mile area in the oil-rich Navarine Basin will not, however, be so casually yielded.