Due to climate change and the current polarised state of the world, the Arctic will most likely be an area of increased geopolitical conflict.
When it comes to potential areas for future geopolitical and military conflict, the South Chinese Sea – and the Taiwan Strait more specifically – is often mentioned. Yet another major area for future clashes of the geopolitical and possibly also military kind is certainly the Arctic region, because of the changes that already are occurring there due to the impact of climate change. The warming of the climate in the Arctic is currently taking place at a rate that is twice as fast compared to other areas on the globe, and the North Pole is already two degrees hotter than at the end of the 1970s. In other words, the ices are melting in the Arctic region – and much faster than anticipated, to the point where experts are speculating that the entire Arctic could be without ice for at least parts of the year as early as by 2030. We would thus have an entirely new Arctic.
This will obviously be devastating from an environmental perspective, as these changes already affect ecosystems and the weather, as well as animals and the people who live there. Melting sea ice will for instance reduce, or completely obliterate, the habitats of polar bears, walruses and seals that are dependent on the ice for hunting and breeding. Increased shipping traffic will also increase emissions and create underwater noise that may disturb and damage marine life, as well as the fishing and hunting of the local inhabitants. Additionally, the geological foundation of the geographically major island Greenland consists to a significant extent of permafrost whose disappearance will make it necessary for entire societies to be moved or rebuilt if they are to survive.
Controlling the Arctic
Yet the emergence of a new Arctic will not prompt human activity to decrease there, in fact quite the opposite, as it will offer several important resources for those who control the region. Firstly, it will be an entirely new source for food, gas, oil, minerals and other rare earth metals increasingly sought after by countries all over the world. For example, about 30% of all natural gas and about 13% of all oil in the world can be found in the so far unexploited Arctic region. Additionally, fish is another resource that likely will become even more important in the future, when waters further down south will dry out or become uninhabitable due to climate change. Secondly, melting ice also means new possibilities for trade routes that are of interest to countries in or near the region. For example, the opening up of the so-called Northeast Passage will result in an entirely new sea route from Asia to Europe that is much shorter than the present ones and that countries such as Russia and China are particularly interested in. Finally, there are also several important military positionings in the Arctic that will be affected by the changes there, as well as by current geopolitical tensions and perhaps also over conflicts about the resources in the Arctic. Russia has for instance large parts of its submarine fleet deployed with second strike capability, strategic nuclear weapons (i.e., with the capability of launching a nuclear counterattack) based on the (northwestern) Kola peninsula that will become easier for the US and Nato to access due to the melting ice, as well as due to Finland and Sweden joining Nato and the entire Cap of the North (i.e., the interconnected areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland that are located north of the Arctic circle, as well as immediately to the west of the Kola peninsula) now becoming Nato territory. The increased geopolitical tensions in the region should thus not be underestimated, in this case particularly due to the fact that the submarine fleet on the Kola peninsula has existential importance for Russia because of its nuclear capability. And let us not forget that the Arctic region was one of the most militarised areas on the planet during the Cold War.
Today, it is the impact of climate change in combination with renewed geopolitical tension that will make the Arctic region an increasingly important area in the future – particularly for the eight arctic nations (the US, Canada, Sweden, Norway (Svalbard), Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Russia and Finland) that will play central roles in determining how the sought after resources should be allocated, as well as hopefully making sure that the geopolitical tensions in the region do not spiral out of control (needless to say, much more difficult following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). Climate change along with geopolitical ambitions have indeed already created uncertainty between these nations, as territorial claims for extended EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones) are overlapping and disputed. There is for example an Arctic area at the same size as Germany that Canada, Denmark and Russia currently are claiming parts of.
It is for resolving issues like these that the Arctic Council was established in 1996, by the eight Arctic states. Yet following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the activities of the council were put on an indefinite hold – with all other states refusing to collaborate with Russia – and have now only been resumed to a limited extent (i.e., without Russian participation). The same thing happened in 2014 with the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable – an international forum for handling military issues and decreasing military tension in the region – when Russia withdrew following its annexation of Crimea.
Needless to say, the fact that the conversations and collaborations between Russia and the other Arctic states have been paused or cancelled is not good news for numerous reasons. Firstly, because even though there are independent judicial bodies such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that exist to handle issues such as conflicting national claims regarding EEZs, there is an increased risk that major states in particular decide to take matters into their own hands – rather than awaiting the decisions from these bodies (which tend to take a while) – and in that way undermine international regulations based on their own economic interests. Secondly, with the activities of the Arctic Council mostly on hold, as well as the emergence of a new iron curtain between Russia and the now seven Nato countries with Arctic territories, the research and knowledge of the Arctic will now likely be split in two (Russia’s territory alone constitutes roughly 50% of the Arctic). In other words, both sides will in this case lack knowledge of the other half of the Arctic, as collaborative research projects are interrupted – including, of course, those concerning climate change. Finally, there is also increased risk of military confrontation between Nato and Russia – both due to conflicts over resources and territory in the Arctic region, as well as due to geopolitical tension elsewhere. The US has, for instance, deepened its activity in the Arctic since 2007 – such as by building new ports and icebreakers, as well as modernising its military capacity (e.g., bases and radar stations). Russia, similarly, expands its military presence (by moving troops and renovating old bases) along its vast Arctic coast as the ices are melting. And while Sweden and Finland’s applications to Nato were triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, their memberships are also seen as important for future conflicts in the Arctic region (that is, at least by those who are in favour of Nato).
What makes the situation even more complicated is that there is another major country, China, which also is showing significant interest in the Arctic. Now, China is of course not actually an Arctic state, yet nevertheless declared itself a ‘near Arctic state’ in 2018 – precisely insofar as they too have realised the benefits of controlling the enormous amounts of natural resources that will be increasingly available there now that the ices are melting, as well as of the new and shorter sea trading routes. China thus wants to see the Arctic as a global arena and are accordingly trying to assert political, commercial, military and scientific influence in the region (e.g., by making investments in the autonomous territory of Greenland that is seeking independence from Denmark, yet by doing so would need external economic support of the kind that the Chinese are offering). So far, this has largely been met with scepticism by the Arctic nations – but due to the increased rift between Russia and the other Arctic states (again, now all Nato countries), as well as Russia’s deepened relationship with China, it is not a stretch to speculate that China indeed will gain more influence in the region in the future through Russia (particularly, of course, since Russia will be more dependent on China than the other way round).
A Race for the Arctic
What we thus have is a sort of ‘space race’, or Arctic race, for a massive region that will look very different in the near future. Indeed, given the facts that there are tons of resources and other important benefits at stake, and that there are three superpowers involved within a context of increased geopolitical tension between these superpowers in particular – that is, between Russia/China and the US/Nato (represented by the other Arctic states) – the Arctic is indeed ripe for future geopolitical conflict. It is against the backdrop of this race for the Arctic that Donald Trump’s intention, in 2019, of buying Greenland should be understood (there is not only plenty of natural resources – oil, gas, minerals, water and fish – to be found on the island, but it is also located strategically important between the US and Russia, and the US already operates a military base there). One may of course laugh at the silliness of such an idea, yet it is important to be aware of its broader geopolitical context and similar positionings of other countries. For instance, what is less known than Trump’s remarks about Greenland is that Russia, as early as 2007, (for the first time ever) sent two deep-sea submersibles to the seabed beneath the North Pole and placed a Russian flag there – which served as an alarm bell for other countries and prompted discussion about who controls the resources in the Arctic.
Tension has only intensified since and will do so for sure at least in the near future. There is simply too much at stake given the massive amounts of resources for energy, (green) technology and nutrition (both food and clean water) that are available there – which all, ironically, will become even more important to control due to accelerating climate change. Yet only time will tell how all the conflicts and claims for the Arctic region will be resolved given the already increasingly tense geopolitical situation. Additionally, there are also the indigenous people of the Arctic, such as the Innuits and the Sámi, who yet again risk being victims of the interests of approaching superpowers (extracting natural resources, claiming territory, getting into conflict with each other, etc.). Needless to say, the future of the Arctic should ideally be one of mutual cooperation for the benefit of all – including the local indigenous people as well as all those affected by climate change who do not live near the Arctic – yet, given the present state of the world, we are currently far away from such a reality.
Featured Image: (duncan cumming/flickr)