The Arctic: The Latest Political Arena

By Orlando V

Four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev announced “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace”. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Arctic was an area of low political tension. However, since the turn of the century, Russian relationships with the Western world have deteriorated, resulting in a more confrontational view of the Arctic due to its numerous socio-economic and military benefits. To the dismay of the US, Chinese interests in the Arctic have also recently been piqued as projected ice-free summers will aid maritime trade. The conflicting aims of these global superpowers and the increasing Sino-Russian relationship has resulted in the Arctic becoming an important geostrategic region: the latest political arena.

The Arctic is crucial to the Kremlin’s foreign policy for a myriad of political, economic and even military reasons. Russia views the Arctic as an important way to counter the threat posed by NATO, as five of the eight Arctic states belong to the organisation. Russia’s renewed military presence, through investment in the Northern Fleet, secures their 24,000km Arctic border and guarantees freedom of operation from the Western world. Russia is also interested in the Arctic due to its role in global maritime trade. In 2017, a Russian tanker circumnavigated the Arctic without the aid of an icebreaker, connecting Europe to Asia in just 19 days – 29 days shorter than the time it would usually take. This expeditious maritime route through the Arctic would crucially help strengthen Russia’s global trading position, saving time and fuel. Control of the Arctic will also help Russia make the most of the Arctic’s untapped reserves of oil and natural gases. Fossil fuels play a key part in Russia’s economy, and in 2020, accounted for 60% of all its exports. A 2012 US Geological Study found that the Arctic holds around 90 billion barrels of oil: these untapped reserves are viewed by the Kremlin as a worthwhile investment. This is more salient then ever given the current global energy situation as Russia look to secure more oil and establish a monopoly, forcing other countries into trade deals in the desperate scramble for a sustainable source of energy. It is for these military and economic reasons that the Kremlin have taken such an interest in the Arctic, ready to reap the benefits of the area’s geostrategic location.

The 2018 ‘Arctic Strategy’ illustrates that China also view the Arctic with covetous eyes. Currently, the UN Law of the Sea and the Spitsbergen Treaty gifts China rights to scientific research, navigation and cable-laying in the Arctic. Nevertheless, this self-proclaimed “near-Arctic state” desires more Arctic influence for further advancements in its economic and military position. The Arctic region is central to Beijing’s efforts to diminish coal dependence and to escalate energy security. It is for this reason that the Chinese have invested in the 3,000km “Power of Siberia” and the Arctic LNG 2, which both provide oil through the Arctic. Investment in the Arctic Northern Sea Route has further aided Chinese industry, reducing fuel costs exponentially. Much to the consternation of the US, China also see the polar region as a strategic military area. The head of the Polar Research Institute for China called the Arctic a “strategic frontier”, arguing that they “cannot rule out the possibility of using force” in the “scramble for new strategic spaces in the Arctic.”

The interests of both China and Russia have called for an adequate response from the US and the West. China’s self-designation as a “near-Arctic region” has been labelled “absurd” by a US official who pointed out that China is located 3,000km from the Arctic Circle. While China does not currently have the capacities to project military power in the Arctic, its investment in the Arctic still constitutes a major threat to American interests. Russia’s reopening of 50 Soviet military posts in the Arctic has also worried the US: according to the American political advisor, Morgan Ortagus, Russia has not only reopened older military bases but also “created new bases that can support long range offensive operations” and heavily invested in the Northern Fleet. US policy-makers understand the dangers of Sino-Russian relations in the Arctic, especially because of the proximity of the Arctic region to America’s Alaskan territory. It is for this reason that ex-Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, invested heavily to “fortify America’s security and diplomatic presence in the Arctic” by “hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding the Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs.” The West fear Sino-Russian activities may ruin the current peacetime cooperation of circumpolar politics and America has started taking defensive precautions, reactivating their Second Fleet and stationing twice as many fifth-generation fighter planes in Alaska. Putin’s felonious war in Ukraine has further increased tensions in the Arctic, and we can only hope that the Arctic council can continue to promote intergovernmental cooperation in a time of ever rising military tensions with potentially destructive consequences.

The Arctic looks set to become the latest political arena as China and Russia invest in the area to improve maritime trade and reap the benefits of access to natural resources. China and Russia’s combined Arctic activity has aroused concerns in the USA due to the alarming proximity of the region to its Alaskan territory. The exploitive aims of Russia and China have transformed this once neglected region into the latest political arena, where the interests of the world’s three greatest powers are colliding.

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