By Stanley Shapiro
In August of 2017, a Russian tanker sailed through the Arctic without an icebreaker escort for the first time. While this event didn’t make global headlines, it does have massive implications for the future of the Arctic region, as both a trade route and a well of resources.
Currently, eight nations: the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Finland, and Sweden, comprise the membership of the Arctic Council. Furthermore, only the first five nations listed have the legal right to harvest resources from the Arctic, as it falls within their exclusive economic zones. However, these are not the only nations with an interest in the Arctic. In 2013, six non-member states, including China, were admitted to the Arctic Council as permanent observers. This timing is not a coincidence. The Arctic is far from the desolate expanse of ice many believe it to be. In fact, it is full of oil, natural gas, minerals, and construction aggregate. As climate change continues to make the Arctic more accessible, more nations want a stake in it.
Popular Arctic shipping routes including Russia’s Northern Sea Route and the Northeast Passage have the potential to revolutionize global shipping. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, said “I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes.” This is for good reason. With this route, one can shave at least ten days off a journey between China and Europe, compared to using the Suez Canal. Additionally, these routes are free of pirates and allow ships to minimize fuel usage, meaning less costs to operators. While they are near useless with ice present, but if recent trends continue, this won’t be a problem for much longer.
So, with all of this potential, how is the battle for the Arctic unfolding? The three major nations involved are the United States, China, and Russia. As of now, Russia is considered the dominant power in the Arctic, with tens of billions of dollars of investment in its northern infrastructure and a massive fleet of ice breakers. China has shown a new and forceful interest in the region. It has added a “Polar Silk Road” to its Belt and Road initiative and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Arctic research vessels and infrastructure. Along with this, China recently signed a free trade agreement with Iceland and built an embassy in Reykjavik. It is clear China has intense interest in the region, even go as far as to brand itself a “Near Arctic State.”
This has inevitably led to conflict with the United States, the final major power involved in the region. Former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said “We are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding coast guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic affairs, inside of our own military,” in what was likely a response to recent Chinese interest and cooperation with Russia in the region. The US is also working to strengthen ties with other Artic countries including Greenland and Denmark, among others. It appears as if it will yet again be a conflict along the lines of the east and west, with the US, NATO, and the Arctic Council on one side, and China and Russia on the other. It is unknown how the region will ultimately divide, but it is certain it won’t be without conflict.