Image source: climate.nasa.gov/
Basic physiological and social human needs (food, water, shelter, personal interaction) are widely accepted, though there is often one glaring omission which has quite literally defined history as we know it – exploration. From emigration beyond the Fertile Crescent to discovering the new world and venturing to the stars, it is undeniable that humanity is compelled to search beyond its present circumstance. Today, it can easily be argued that there is little left of our planet’s surface to explore, finally raising the question: Rather than what’s next, what now is even left?
As inhospitable as many isolated regions on Earth are, one particular arena has continually proven to be of particular interest on a global scale despite almost universally futile attempts to tame it thus far. The future geopoliticization of the Arctic, specifically the Arctic Ocean, is an extraordinarily multifaceted issue, due in large part to its status as one of very few globally impactful regions under indeterminate sovereignty. However, that complexity can reasonably be distilled into two distinct factors – economic (including environmental) considerations and security.
The economic concerns arise primarily through enhanced commercial shipping and expected availability of natural resources such as oil and gas, of which the Arctic may contain as much as a third of the world’s current undiscovered supply. Naturally, both inextricably link to environmental considerations, though their abundance of significance seems to relegate those to the back-burner. Therefore, an approach remotely similar to the Antarctic Treaty, which deems the continent to be a scientific preserve as well as banning any military presence, is out of the question. The greater hope from an environmental perspective, though it may be too much of a fantasy, would consist of international cooperation toward preserving as much ice to avoid globally catastrophic changes as reasonably possible given the inevitable capitalization in the region.
It certainly can be said that, despite the many potential benefits to be realized via investment in the Arctic, it may not be significant enough an arena to be the direct cause of larger global conflict between superpowers. However, it would be equally difficult to argue the aforementioned two factors could not be enough to tip the scales in already tense international relationships. This would most likely play out specifically when nations approach the region with a longer-term outlook than typical five-year public strategy.
Three shipping routes are at the forefront of the economic issues, each slashing the time it would take to trade between the Western world and East Asia by as much as 30 percent compared to the Suez Canal via Egypt or sailing all the way around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. This of course is a critical consideration for many nations as maritime shipping accounts for more than 80 percent of globally traded products. Currently, the Northern Sea Route is the only commercially viable means by which to traverse the Arctic. Yet even to say the NSR is open during a six-to-eight-week summer window is generous, as ice breaker escorts are required to safely navigate the majority of the route, which follows the Russian northern coast in its entirety. Russia has made a point to declare, to the chagrin of many, that the route operates within internal waters and as such collects a number of fees.
Canada is primarily responsible for the barely-traversable Northwest Passage. The United States has emphasized a legitimate dual claim via Alaska which surely will become more contentious as the passage becomes more feasible, as would Greenland’s potential influence, perhaps as soon as the turn of the next decade. Finally, possibly more likely to open prior to the NWP is the so-called Transpolar Sea Route, which would bring Iceland and Norway more directly into play.
This is where economics and security coalesce, as two nations in particular have both the most to gain from the economization of the region, and are already best-positioned to capitalize. Russia, of course, has been angling to claim vast percentages of the oil and gas while also investing heavily in more than a half dozen military bases along its coastline, which actually sits entirely within the Arctic Circle.
China, meanwhile, recently declared itself a ‘near-Arctic’ state and has gained observer status in the Arctic Council while making significant investments in both Greenland and Iceland along with various Russian partnerships. Many believe these actions to be for the twofold purpose of ensuring viable future commerce as well as military staging options. One potential concern for China regarding a military staging point may the poorly kept secret of the submarine war games by the U.S. and Russia beneath the North Pole over the last several decades, though that seems a way off still for the Chinese navy.
Both nations have been limited in the global economy – yes, in part due to their regimes and policies – primarily based on their remote location proximate to Europe and the U.S. Yet make no mistake – more open maritime trading via the Arctic will drastically enhance both countries’ economic standing and global influence.
Thus, Europe is caught in the most precarious of positions, as any potential gains from commerce in the Arctic will only further widen the growing gap between the world’s three top superpowers, which have both the established investment and naval support required to dominate proceedings within the arena. Europe’s primary hope to remain a significant presence as the future of the region is decided lies in the Kingdom of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, lying just further from the Arctic Center than the northernmost points of Greenland, Canada and Russia. Though the 1920 Svalbard Treaty recognizing Norway’s sovereignty also demilitarized the archipelago, recent and widely well-regarded Russian military exercises in the Arctic – some particularly close to Svalbard – have given rise to some back-room politicization regarding establishing a European Union military presence on the islands.
Year-round travel within the Arctic Circle, even with a near-complete summer melt of the polar ice cap, is not scientifically likely to occur for several decades. Still, any expansion of current capabilities will have extraordinary potential and bring according gravity to various other aspects of international relations. Whatever specific circumstances the next decade brings to Arctic policy, it is abundantly clear that the world’s leading powers are determined to force their own agendas. Thus, in the absence of purposeful European strategy, any expansion of commerce in the region currently stands to leave the EU in a losing position despite modest gains relative to the rest of the world.