The global contest for influence in the melting Arctic

  • Sabin Selimi
  • 24 Mar 2019

Eight states have direct control over land in the Arctic. With ice melting faster than previously thought, the global contest for economic resources there has begun. And Russia is gaining ground, while China is buying stakes and influence.

A nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker plies the Arctic Ocean, where warmer temperatures are opening new shipping routes. ( Getty Images )

Temperatures are rising globally. We will all be in profound trouble this century. The global biosphere acts as a single system, so normally when environmental degradation touches one part of the world, the causes are usually local.

The indigenous communities in the high north facing rapid environmental change are different because scientists are well aware that the causes are not local there. Rising temperatures affect everyone on this planet, and the people of the Arctic are feeling only the first wave. Politics in the Arctic are, however, not local either. They are global. 

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

Some will see an opportunity arising from global warming. The ice in the high north is melting faster than previously thought — twice the rate of lower latitudes. The Arctic could even be ice-free in two decades or so, meaning the geopolitical contest for domination of the world’s pinnacle may accelerate.

Melting sea ice will offer an opportunity for Arctic states to access economic resources, with the new shipping route opening up and enormous reserves of oil and gas waiting to be discovered. They comprise 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 15 percent of the world’s untapped oil. 

Out of all the Arctic states, it is Russia that has an outsized Arctic presence, in both coastline and population, and currently exhibits the most significant determination to benefit from its geographical location.

Global warming will not only have an environmental impact but geopolitical implications, too. Arctic states will have an opportunity to access oil and gas and the new sea routes now emerging in the North Pole is a transport corridor with substantial commercial and military potential, shortening travel time from one continent to another by one-third in comparison with the existing shipping route via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.

Last year, Russian gas company Novatek shipped a cargo of LNG (liquefied natural gas) to China, taking fewer days than it usually would take on the existing route via the Suez Canal. 

Navigatable seas in the North Pole mean that Russia can export its LNG much more easily. This in itself is a great opportunity for Russia’s economy.

The Arctic is regulated by treaties, especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by 168 states in 1982, which goes into great detail on demarcating territorial seas and economic zones in the Arctic Circle. 

And the Arctic Council, a consensus-driven environmental forum, comprises the region’s states and indigenous communities of the Arctic.

The Council focuses on sustainable development and environmental protection. However, its mandate excludes military security. It is important to note that Russia has been building up its military in the Arctic, constructing new bases, reflecting a perceived change in its security needs.

Russia has been sending important signals, projecting its own power and capabilities in the high north. Moscow does not have many friends in the region as five other Arctic states are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which has not recognised Russia’s increased military position yet. 

Given its strong interest in the Arctic and the military investment it is making there, it is not unimaginable that Russia may move to make territorial claims beyond its own in the region.

Russia is not alone in the high north, of course. Other Arctic states such as the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland all have territory that lies within the Arctic Circle. 

Yet other non-Arctic states, like China, which would like a piece of the pie, cannot physically claim territory but instead can buy stakes and influence. China is now investing in its fleet of icebreakers and Beijing broadened its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative for trade to include the Arctic.

The Chinese are already joint financiers of several Russian projects in the Arctic. And when US President Donald Trump visited Beijing in November last year, the oil giant Sinopec and Bank of China pledged to help finance Alaska’s state gas corporation to build the $43 billion Alaska LNG Project. 

To what extent might the Arctic actually become the Chinese Arctic when it comes to writing cheques? What are the security implications of China gradually buying influence on the shores and in the seas that belong to the Arctic states?

The Arctic makes up only six percent of the planet’s surface, and yet it feels like we live on the other side of the Earth from each other. China’s Arctic ambition is so profound that it requires, literally, a different view of the world map.

Beijing’s vertical map projects a worldview few people have considered. It is a world that has China squarely at its centre as the Middle Kingdom and is marked by a lack of ice in the North Pole. 

With China cultivating financial and maritime influence, just how much power Russia holds over the Arctic is a future harder to project than even how fast the temperatures are rising.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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