Power Politics in Melting Arctic

Artic had been a curial arena for mutual deterrence between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But since the disintegration of the USSR and universalization of democratic-liberal values, most of the world scholars have termed the Arctic region as “Arctic exceptionalism” because of geopolitical stability that emerged by the power vacuum in post-Cold War era. Today, how we describe the region is, however, not Arctic exceptionalism but rise of structural anarchy, a realistic perspective that was expounded by John Mearsheimer. The dynamic of power politic in the region is characterized by the geopolitical tensions between the United States and its NATO allies near the Arctic on the one side and China and Russia on the other side, especially after Beijing’s self-declared status of the “near-Arctic state” and Moscow’s military build-up near its Arctic waters.

Source: Melting Arctic, Bloomberg

With the end of Arctic exceptionalism, that emergence of great powers’ race to conquer Arctic is driven by global warming which, in contrast to environmental activists, is facilitating them with number of opportunities. Being the one of the most affected region of the world by climate change, the vast frozen ocean in the north pole, Arctic has lost 50% of its ice in 50 years, opening up not only environment risks but also geopolitical ones. According to the US geology Survey and Pentagon, the region encompasses 13% of world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of world’s undiscovered natural gas and has $1 trillion worth rare earth metals under the ice. Moreover, Ice-free ocean is also opening up new shorter shipping routes between Asian and Western markets. All of these are contribution in the expansion of U.S.-China strategic rivalry and in the rebirth of Cold war rivalries between Russia and the United States in the region.

In terms of structural realists’ perspective, the regional interests of Russia and China symbolize the Sino-Russian convergence which is perceived as a threat to US global hegemon. China, the world’s largest manufacturing power and Russia, the world’s second largest defense producer, deem the Arctic ocean a crucial for shaping the U.S.-led world order. In 2018, China, having joined the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013, declared itself a “Near-Arctic State” on the basis of its Arctic Strategy that is, in actual, the Polar Silk Road, forth component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to the blueprint of the strategy, Beijing will be institutionalizing the new shipping lanes for oil, gas, fishing, and tourism as primary industries in the Arctic ocean as impacts of global warming progresses in the North Pole.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

On the other hand, despite looming disastrous economy, Russia’s economic and military approach to the Arctic is proving it a dominant regional player because of its geographic location near the Arctic. The fact that fifty-three percent of Russia’s coastline is in the Arctic allows Moscow to pursue its economic interests which are extraction oil and gas and the development of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean. Moreover, to make the region more accessible for its economic interests, Russia is developing new ice-breakers and submarines, some of which are nuclear powered. The driving incentives behind Russian’s economic pursuit in the Arctic region is much of the uncovered resources in Russia’s territorial waters of the Arctic, but the security of its economic interests is the first and foremost concern for Putin’s Arctic strategy.

For strengthening and protecting its economic interests, Russia is gradual expanding its military build-up near the Arctic in the form of new military and naval bases. For instance, in 2014, Russia lay the foundation of a new Strategic Command center for the Arctic to enhance Arctic security and to defend its interests. Furthermore, Russia has also built more than 475 new military outputs and 16 new deep-water ports. Regardless of Russia’s aggressive control over the Northern Sea Route and interest in the Arctic, Russia’s Arctic focus will play a vital role as the vast frozen ocean continues to melt, and resources become easier to access.

Race for the Arctic is depicting extensive mutual cooperation between Russia and China, that is, China has been providing funds for Russian infrastructure and energy project in the Arctic. For example, China’s National Petroleum Corporation holds a 20 percent share in the Yamal Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) extraction project. For some scholars, the underlying basis of this convergence can be pinpointed by their multilateral geo-strategic partnership — “1997 Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and Establishment of a New International Order” and “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation 2001” — to shape the U.S.-led global order. However, for other scholars, their cooperation become conspicuous as the U.S.-China geo-political tensions getting intense. For instance, in 2014, Obama administration expelled Russia form one of the principal security-based Arctic forums, “The Arctic Security Forces Roundtable”, and in 2019, the Trump administration blacklisted China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) that had ramifications for Russian dependence on hydrocarbon from China. Apart from their converging economic interests in the Arctic, Russia is proving to be a worthy ally, especially in the North Pole.

Being a primary structural player in anarchical system of state, the U.S. perceiving the current developments in the Arctic Ocean by China and Russia as a security dilemma. The U.S., which emerged as the sole super-power on the earth after the demise of USSR, is now being challenged by China and to some extent by Russia mainly on economic and military fronts of world politics. And that great powers rivalry has spillover in the form of race for Arctic between US on the one side and Chain and Russia on the other. It is, for example, intelligibly conspicuous from 11th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland where US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo called the Arctic “an arena of global power and competition”. Subsequently, President Joe Biden, after wining contentious election 2020 against Donald Trump and having taken office for over one month, has taken several moves in the Arctic. For example, according to the CNN report on February 9, “the US Air Force is deploying B-1 bombers to Norway for the first time”. In that way, the Arctic race could be an another major flashpoint between the great powers.

The probability of a military confrontations between the United States and Russia or/and between the U.S. and China is significantly heightened. Although the U.S. and Russia cherish acrimony towards each other, based on the Cold War rivalry, there is intensive dispute of territorial waters claims in the Arctic ocean between Russia and Arctic states, some of which are the U.S. NATO allies. On the other hand, being concerned over the rise of China challenging its world order, the U.S. is planning to counter Chinese influence. Lieutenant General David Krumm, commander of Alaska Command and the Eleventh Air Force said, “China in the South China Sea continues to make territorial claims that are not recognised by the international community. We see that China’s using a series of abject intimidation, economic, coercion techniques to try and justify their territorial claims. We need to make sure that pattern is not repeated up here in the Arctic”

In sum, geo-political and economic interests are bringing China and Russia closer, especially in the Arctic, but in future, the course of action of the both great power remains to be seen because they do not have a historically close relationship. The three powers will certainly not going towards regional hegemonic war for the time being, but the policies of the newly elected Biden administration will decide As the region is becoming more and more accessible because of the looming impact of climate change, competition for untapped natural resources and control over shipping lanes will get furious.

Evergreen Scholar of World Politics | Mechatronics Engineer | Blogger & Freelance Writer