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The Arctic Region In A Strategic Melting Pot – Analysis

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The Arctic region—the northernmost part of the Earth—has been the cynosure of global geopolitical interests since beginning of the 21st century. Even some countries outside the region such as China have high stakes in the emerging geoeconomic landscapes of the Arctic. The United States and the European Union have already expressed their concerns and anxieties over the expanding role of China in the geopolitical terrain of the Arctic region and the emerging collaborative endeavours between Russia and China. While the major powers have been recalibrating their Arctic strategies, India also stepped in with its new Arctic policy recently. All this suggests that the Arctic region is sliding itself into a potential terrain of big power rivalry. 

The Arctic—which is often defined as the area within the Arctic Circle—comprises of the Arctic Ocean basin and the northern segments of eight countries: Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States, who are the Arctic States in the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum established in 1996. 

The northernmost circle of the planet is much more than a mere snow-covered terrain. The Arctic landscapes constitute a wide variety of formations such as sea ice, glaciers, mountains, coastal wetlands, upland tundra, wide rivers, and the sea itself. Though the Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest ocean (more than 6 million square miles), it is much bigger than the size of the U.S. The Arctic glaciers and icebergs offer as much as 20 per cent of Earth’s supply of freshwater.

The region is home to a rich repertoire of species. Its biodiversity is unique with its peculiar ecological conditions and human habitat of millions indigenous communities. It has also a vibrant marine ecosystem. However, the Arctic is now facing a multitude of threats—the most decisive is climate change. There are also several threats from oil and gas development projects, mining and shipping traffic. Scientists warn that warming in the region is alarmingly on the increase and even a small change in the temperature in the region will make the Arctic a potentially dangerous place for the entire planet. Added to this list of threats is big power competition and rivalry in the Arctic. 

What attracts the big powers in the Arctic is obviously its rich deposits of oil and natural gas. The region is also well endowed with a variety of minerals, including nickel, copper ore, gemstones and rare earth elements.  It is estimated that the Arctic region’s oil and gas deposits constitute nearly 13 per cent of the world’s unexplored petroleum resources and 30 per cent of the untapped natural gas resources.(1) Already big powers like Russia and the U.S. have major projects in the region. For example, nearly one-fourth of Russia’s oil and gas condensate reserves and more than 70 per cent of gas reserves can be located in the Arctic zone of Russia and about 83 per cent of gas and 12 per cent of oil is produced there. (2)  

In the American state of Alaska, many oil companies have projects to extract and export millions of barrels of oil every year. For example, Alaska’s North Slope has 6 percent of the largest oil fields in the U.S. and one of the 100 largest natural gas fields. A study (3) says that concerns are in place over the environmental impact of these activities given the Arctic’s fragile ecosystems and the difficulty of monitoring and responding to spills because of inaccessibility and unfavourable climatic conditions.  

The Arctic has also become strategically important over years insofar as the Northwest Passage remains the most profitable shipping lane between Europe and Asia. According to experts, shipping time could be reduced by 40 per cent if the Northwest and Northeast passages were ice-free all year (4). China realised the importance of this potential shipping route and in its Arctic Policy (5) published in January 2018, Beijing referred to the trans-Arctic passage as the “Central Passage.” Calling itself as a “Near-Arctic State”—being “one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle”—China noted that “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative), an important cooperation initiative of China, will bring opportunities for parties concerned to jointly build a “Polar Silk Road”, and facilitate connectivity and sustainable economic and social development of the Arctic.” The Chinese policy document says: 

The Arctic shipping routes comprise the Northeast Passage, Northwest Passage, and the Central Passage. As a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade…. China hopes to work with all parties to build a “Polar Silk Road” through developing the Arctic shipping routes. It encourages its enterprises to participate in the infrastructure construction for these routes and conduct commercial trial voyages in accordance with the law to pave the way for their commercial and regularized operation. China attaches great importance to navigation security in the Arctic shipping routes. It has actively conducted studies on these routes and continuously strengthened hydrographic surveys with the aim to improving the navigation, security and logistical capacities in the Arctic.”(6) 

It may be noted that the concept of “Central Passage” does not appear anywhere in the Arctic states’ public policy documents as it is enunciated in the Chinese Arctic policy. Norway’s Arctic strategy only mentions the “Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage” as they are “relevant for transport between markets in the Atlantic and the Pacific.” Another Arctic state, Canada, makes references to “Northwest Passage” while Russia, Iceland and other countries talk about “Northern sea route” in different contexts. 

Russia and China collaborate in the emerging Arctic geopolitics and the collaboration in shipping in the Russian Arctic is a part of their comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction. The two countries also seek to ensure the development of secure navigable deep-water shipping routes in the region and collaborate in the construction of large-tonnage tankers and icebreakers. (7)

Mia Bennett, a specialist in Polar Studies writes: “China’s efforts to drum up the Transpolar Passage is a form of geopolitical posturing. Unlike the Northeast and Northwest Passages, the Transpolar Passage would run mostly through the high seas, where all countries have freedom of navigation, rather than through any waters that could be claimed as internal. China would not be beholden to any government’s regulations when sailing there.” She says, “More than just an act of geopolitical bravado, however, China may also be trying to establish first-mover advantage in the Transpolar Passage because the climate science makes clear that a seasonally ice-free Arctic is nearly inevitable.” (8)

While China is fast expanding its Arctic strategy, Russia is also bolstering its military capability in the Arctic with its Northern Fleet being located in the Kola Peninsula where its strategic submarines—essential to maintain Russia’s status as a nuclear power—are maintained.  According to Andreas Østhagen, an expert in Arctic Studies, it “is not the melting of the sea ice that has spurred Russia’s military emphasis on the Arctic—it is the importance of the Arctic for Moscow’s more general strategic plans and ambitions.”  (9)

The U.S Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report Changes in the Arctic: Background and Issues for Congress brought out on 1 February 2021 says that Russia has “plans to bolster the country’s Arctic military capabilities, strengthen territorial sovereignty, and develop the region’s resources and infrastructure.” The Report also points out that with Russia assuming the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2021, “national security concerns will be a priority for Russia during its two-year chairmanship of the council.” (10)

Insofar as the Arctic ice is “diminishing more rapidly” on the Russian side of the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s coast would be “opened up for trans-Arctic shipping than is the Northwest Passage through the Canadian archipelago.”  The CRS Report further underlined that given the growing Russian military capabilities and activities in the region, there are concerns among the U.S, Canada and the Nordic states that the Arctic would again become “a region of military tension and competition.” (11) It may be recalled that during the Cold War, the Arctic was a terrain of military rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union when both countries maintained nuclear-powered submarines, long-range bombers, and tactical combat aircraft in the region. 

Though there was a respite for this rivalry after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the situation began to take a new dimension during the last decade, particularly after Russia asserting that some parts of the Northern Sea Route (NSR)—linking Europe and Asia—pass through its internal waters and hence it has a right to regulate commercial shipping. This triggered a dispute between the U.S and Russia, which would have implications for other parts of the world as well, and thereby it would even undermine the universal application of international law on international waters. This assumes strategic significance given the fact that five of the eight Arctic states—the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway—are members of NATO and three of them—Denmark, Finland, and Sweden—are members of the European Union (EU). During the Cold War, Norway and its contiguous sea areas were reckoned to be the northern flank of NATO’s defensive line against potential aggression by the Moscow-led alliance. 

The CRS Report also seriously viewed China’s growing activities in the Arctic region and its engagements with the Nordic countries, like Iceland and Greenland.  China has polar-capable icebreakers and is planning to develop a huge nuclear-powered icebreaker also—the second after Russia to maintain one in the Arctic. The U.S is also concerned about the growing ties between China and Russia and their collaboration in different areas of the Arctic, including Beijing’s investments in Russia’s oil and gas industry.(12)   

Strategic specialists argue that even “punitive costs” could be imposed on China in the Arctic “for unwanted actions that China takes elsewhere.” They suggest that China’s observer status on the Arctic Council could be suspended “as a punitive cost-imposing measure for unwanted Chinese actions in the South China Sea.”  

The U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a speech in Finland on 6 May 2019 said that China’s observer status in the Arctic Council “is contingent upon its respect for the sovereign rights of Arctic states.” (13) Washington always expected China to behave “responsibly in the region.” Pompeo, however, said that “China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions.” Rejecting China’s claims to be a “Near-Arctic State,” Pompeo pointed out that there are “only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing” given the fact that “the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles.” He also said that though China attempted “to develop critical infrastructure” using Chinese money and Chinese labour, it also sought “to establish a permanent Chinese security presence.” Pompeo further reminded that there was even a warning from the Pentagon that China could use its civilian research programmes in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence” including “deployment of submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attack.”   (14)

A senior U.S. State Department official also outlined the Trump Administration’s strategy for the Arctic. In a statement on 23 April 2020, he said: the U.S. has been “in the process of adjusting (its) Arctic policy to today’s new strategic realities, and those are characterized by the return of geopolitics. And it’s a change that’s driven by the desire of Russia and the People’s Republic of China to challenge the United States and the West.” He said that “we’ve also seen across the globe that China’s soft-power tools often have a soft edge when deployed by the PRC. It’s weaponized its state capitalism in an effort to secure control of critical infrastructure such as ports and telecommunications networks.” He also repeated Pompeo’s statement that the U.S cannot “accept Beijing’s claims to be a near-Artic state.” (15)

The U.S. Department of Defence in its 2020 Annual Report to the Congress (Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020) stated that China’s “expanding Arctic engagement has created new opportunities for engagement between China and Russia.” (16) Evidently, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the Coast Guard (part of the Department of Homeland Security) have increased attention to the Arctic in their planning and operations. Of late, the Arctic strategy documents were brought out by the DOD, as well as the Navy and Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard separately.(17)  Reports say that U.S. Army has been conducting increased exercises and training operations in the region, some in conjunction with forces from NATO allies, that are aimed at reacquainting U.S. forces with operating conditions, recovering Arctic-specific warfighting skills, strengthening interoperability with allied forces in the region, identifying Arctic military capability gaps, testing the performance of equipment under Arctic conditions etc.(18)

The U.S. Navy also issued a roadmap for the Arctic. The strategic blueprint for the Arctic released in January 2021 stated that the United States being a maritime nation as well as an Arctic state, its “security, prosperity, and vital interests in the Arctic are increasingly linked to those of other nations in and out of the region.” It said: “In the decades ahead, rapidly melting sea ice and increasingly navigable Arctic waters–a Blue Arctic–will create new challenges and opportunities off our northern shores. Without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours.”  (19)

Even as the major powers began to recalibrate their Arctic strategies, India also stepped in with its draft Arctic policy in early January 2021. The policy has been enunciated in the context of India’s Polar engagements over the last two decades, which is today seen as part of its ‘Science Diplomacy.’ It also has different dimensions in line with India’s robust scientific-technological (‘SciTech’ power) status. The draft policy has five major components— (1) Science and research; (2) Economic and human development cooperation; (3). Transportation and connectivity; (4) Governance and international cooperation; and (5) National capacity building. Evidently, India sees the Artic region as a potential area of engagement in diverse areas of human development and commercial activities. For example, in the area of transportation and connectivity, India seems to have an ambitious plan given its third position in the list of seafarer supplying nations catering to almost ten per cent of global demand. (20)

India knows that that ice free conditions in the Arctic may result in the “opening of new shipping routes and thereby lowering costs and reshaping global trade. Traffic, especially through the Northern Sea Route, is rising exponentially and is projected to quadruple by 2025.” The draft policy thus seeks to “explore the possibility of linking the International North South Transport Corridor with the Unified Deep-Water System and its further extension to the Arctic.” New Delhi expects that “the North-South connectivity” may lead to “lowering shipping costs and overall development of the hinterland and of indigenous communities more than East-West connectivity.” (21) However, India has realised that in the emerging equations in the global power configurations, China would be a critical factor, particularly in the context of Beijing’s more assertive maritime policy and the changing dimensions of Sino-U.S. and Sino-Russian relations in the new Arctic landscape. Hence New Delhi’s focus will be limited to its ‘Science Diplomacy’ and SciTech’ power aspirations. Its draft Arctic policy is thus silent on the emerging geopolitical and strategic challenges in the region. More importantly, India being a strategic partner of the United States, a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) group and the Indo-Pacific strategic formation is least worried about the security challenges in the Arctic. 

Plausibly, over centuries, the global maritime powers were in search of an easy and manageable route from the Atlantic to Asia. The melting of Arctic ice thus may save several thousands of miles and a considerable amount of time of navigation between major trading blocs. Even as the Arctic is set to become a sustainable and viable shipping route, its outcomes may extend far beyond the northernmost part of the planet. Countries like China, Japan, South Korea etc will benefit from lower shipping costs as their manufactured products exported to Europe or North America could become less expensive relative to other emerging manufacturing centres in the world. Yet, much of the commercial pay-offs of the emerging connectivity in the northernmost part of the globe depends on how the big powers negotiate and recalibrate their strategic interests in the Arctic. 

*The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University.  He can be contacted at [email protected] 

  1. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=4650
  2. https://doi.org/10.3390/jmse8121003
  3.  https://www.americangeo sciences.org/geoscience-currents/oil-and-gas-us-arctic 
  4. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/arctic/
  5. http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm
  6. Ibid
  7. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2154896X.2020.1810956?src=recsys
  8. https://www.cryopolitics.com/2019/04/23/transpolar-passage/
  9. https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/nuances-geopolitics-arctic/
  10. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41153.pdf
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. https://www.state.gov/looking-north-sharpening-americas-arctic-focus/
  14. Ibid
  15. https://2017-2021-translations.state.gov/2020/04/23/briefing-with-senior-state-department-official-on-the-administrations-arctic-strategy/index.html
  16. https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF
  17. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41153.pdf
  18. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41153.pdf
  19. Ibid
  20. https://ourgovdotin.wordpress.com/2021/01/04/comments-invited-on-indias-draft-arctic-policy-submit-by-26th-january/
  21. Ibid

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