International Relations > Regions
A vast and largely inhabited frozen wasteland with extreme living conditions, at a first glance the Arctic may seem the less geopolitically-relevant region in the world. Yet, in reality there is one factor that is raising the interest of great powers in the Arctic: global warming.
As the Earth’s temperature rise, the Polar ice cap is gradually melting; and this trend is expected to continue in the coming decades. Apart from the purely environmental effects on the region and beyond (loss of biodiversity, rising sea level, etc.), this phenomenon brings with it two major geopolitical consequences. and makes it easier to access valuable hydrocarbon resources.
First, it opens a new maritime passage, named the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Navigating through the Arctic’s waters remains challenging, but as ice disappears the polar waterway becomes more and more practicable; and the implications are potentially huge. As a matter of fact, the NSR may become an alternative and shorter route connecting Europe and East Asia. By now, maritime traffic remains limited compared to the southern course, also because the support infrastructure is still insufficient; but it has been expanding in recent years and various powers have shown their interest in developing the NSR.
Then, there is the energy dimension. The Arctic is estimated to host huge hydrocarbon reserves, and global warming is making it easier to access them. Of course this raises significant environmental issues linked with the pollution that intense extractive activities may cause, with major damages for the region’s delicate ecosystem; but there is also a strategic dimension. Exploiting the Arctic’s deposits may provide the Asian states with an alternative energy supply source, thus reducing their dependency on the Middle East; a notoriously unstable area. In turn, this also explains why so many Asian countries want to develop the NSR.
Among them, China is probably the one showing the greatest interest in making the NSR a viable shipping lane and in exploiting the Arctic’s energy resources. One of China’s main strategic problems is that it relies almost completely on the southern routes for trading and for importing hydrocarbons from the Middle East. Now, these waters are essentially controlled by the US Navy; meaning that America (China’s main competitor) can easily block them, thus posing a vital threat to the economy and the energy security of the PRC. As such, the Chinese see the NSR as a solution to this strategic dilemma, as it passes through waters located close to Russia (which is currently friendly with China) on which the US would have much more difficulty in exerting their military power, thus reducing its reliance on to the traditional routes passing through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Moreover, the NSR is shorter than these. The same logic applies to the Polar hydrocarbon deposits. Naturally, much work remains to be done; and the solution may not be so effective in practice, since the chokepoint problem may just be moved from Malacca and Suez to Bering and the Barents Sea (especially the latter, since Russia controls one side of Bering thus limiting America’s ability to block it). Still, the PRC has already conducted several expeditions the area all while increasing its activities in local countries like Greenland; which proves its determination to establish its presence in the Arctic. For very similar reasons, powers like Japan and South Korea are also increasingly involved in the region, albeit to a lesser degree (and remembering that in their case the danger is not that the US may cut the traditional trade routes, but instead that this may be the result of a Chinese action or of a Sino-American conflict).
Then, other states have also significant stakes in the Arctic. Russia is obviously one of them: its northern coasts practically surround a vast portion of the region, giving Moscow a privileged position to exert its influence on it. Moreover, developing the NSR and exploiting the region’s energy deposits may boost Russia’s economy in the long term. It is in this context that Russia has strengthened its military presence around the area. Similar trade and energy concerns form also the basis of the interest that European countries have in the Arctic. The situation is different in the case of the US, which contrarily to Russia has quite neglected the area and is today not so well positioned to act there. Apart from gaining access to hydrocarbons deposits, America’s mostly cares about the Arctic because its main competitors (Russia and China) are expanding their influence in the area, and this can have important implications for US national security. As a matter of fact, as navigation around the North Pole becomes easier, Russian and even Chinese military vessels (notably SSBNs) will have an easier access to the northern Atlantic; thus threatening the US East Coast. In this regard, it is notable that Washington has decided to re-establish a North Atlantic Fleet in Spring 2018.
It is therefore clear that the Arctic’s geopolitical configuration is evolving. Until now, international norms and the Arctic Council managed to maintain peaceful and even cooperative relations among regional powers; but the situation may change as trade and energy concerns raise important security concerns. As a result, relations among relevant stakeholders may become more competitive and tense, making of the Arctic another theatre of great power rivalry.
The Bering Strait: A New Chokepoint for Great Power Competition
The Bering Strait might just seem a remote and irrelevant waterway. But as the Arctic ice melts, the maritime traffic along the Norther Sea Route and drilling activities to extract the energy resources around the Pole will both increase.
As this happens, the Bering Strait will gain greater strategic relevance, notably for Russia. Adding the proximity of the US state of Alaska, this is likely to lead to a militarization of the area.
Also, contrarily to what may be expected, the NSR will not solve China's strategic problems about protecting the vital sea lanes; and Bering will not become its main point of concern. The real problem for the PRC is that it will have to rely on Russia to protect its interests in the region; but the Beijing-Moscow partnership may not last forever.
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The Security Implications of China-Greenland Relations
This article examines how China's presence in Greenland could be perceived in the future as a threat for the island's identity (societal security) and for the sovereignty and international influence of Denmark (political security).
It was published by the Polar Research and Policy Initiative and I contributed to it alongside Kenty Dubois, whom I thank for involving me in the project (you can know more about his work on his blog Frost Geopolis).
Full article here.
Greenland: A New Frontier of Great Power Competition
The elections in Greenland in April 2018 were scarcely mentioned in the media. Yet, their long-term effects could be significant.
The vote resulted in a Parliament formed by parties who favor more foreign (notably Chinese) investment as a way to develop the island's economy and allow it to acquire the financial means to move on to independence. Now, China is expected to be a main source of capital, as it is interested in Greenland's natural resources.
But close ties between Beijing and Nuuk will have geopolitical consequences. In the long term, this may threaten America's national security. Moreover, renewed tensions with Russia are also making the island strategically impotant once again.
Full article here (only for Geopolitical Monitor subscribers).
Photo credit: Greenland Travel, Flickr, modified.