The northern region of the world, the Arctic or the North Pole, comes to mind as a white place covered with glaciers. However, many reasons such as global warming, carbon dioxide emissions and the increase in industrialization trigger the melting of glaciers in the Arctic Region and the glaciers in the region are decreasing day by day. 13% of the glaciers melt every ten years, and if this continues, it is thought that the glaciers in the Arctic will completely disappear by 2040.
These changes in the Arctic Region lead to the formation of the policies of the states towards the Arctic. Both the eight Arctic states and many non-regional states have already moved to work in the Arctic.
From this point of view, Ankara Center for Crisis, and Policy Studies (ANKASAM) presents the views of Klaus Dodds, Professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, to evaluate the increasing importance of the Arctic and the activities taking place in the region.
1.Why is the Arctic geopolitically important?
The Arctic is geopolitically important for a number of reasons. First, ‘Arctic geopolitics’ as a term is used as a shorthand designed to raise attention to the manner in which the Arctic region (defined usually as the ice, land and sea and airspace north of the Arctic Circle) has become an object of intensifying interest amongst extra-territorial parties including China, India, and a suite of other countries including Turkey and South Korea.
Second, the Arctic region is an inhabited one (4 million people) which is integral to the eight Artic states including the largest Russia and China. Arctic states are keenly interested in the security and defence of their national territories and have in many cases invested more in enhancing surveillance, protection, and awareness. This in part because the region is recognised as undergo fundamental change – permafrost thawing, sea ice is retreating, wildfires are becoming more prevalent and glaciers are shrinking.
Third, the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has drawn attention to the manner in which the Arctic is caught up in wider strategic calculations. There is now a recognition that the Arctic, the Baltic and Black Sea need to be seen as an arc of engagement with a resurgent Russia.
Fourth, Russia’s militarization of the Arctic which pre-dates the Ukrainian invasion has continued and despite disruptions caused to Russia by the war campaign, it is highly likely that the country will continue to prioritize resource development – and working in partnership with Asian countries such as China and India. What we are witnessing in the Arctic is symptomatic of wider global geopolitical change.
Finally, while comparatively remote, the scale and pace of change in the Arctic Ocean is making many countries reconsider the way in which there maybe scope to initiate a new transport corridor across the top of the world.
The Arctic is no longer remote, disconnected and immune from great power rivalries. It challenges the more positive circumpolar vision of cooperation embodied by the Arctic Council which was launched in 1996. And the collapse in the relationship with Russia puts under threat the promise posed by Arctic scientific internationalism. Without access to the Russian Arctic, for example, longer-term monitoring of the Arctic becomes a lot harder for non-Russian scientists.
- There are some discourses that the new stage of the global struggle will be the Arctic. What do you think about these discourses?
The idea of a new Cold War in the Arctic is a popular one and in the recent past there was a trend to describe the Arctic as being subject to a new scramble for territory. The planting of a Russian flag at the bottom of the central Arctic Ocean in 2007 probably triggered a great deal of this. Nowadays the focus is on Russia’s relationship with China – which intensified after sanctions were imposed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Russia-China alliance comes at a time when the Arctic Council has paused its activity after the full scale invasion in 2022.
The fear might be that the Arctic fragments and the European and North American Arctic disconnects from the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF). It is worth remembering that 50% of the Arctic is Russian and there is a danger that the Arctic Council becomes a seven state forum minus Russia more permanently. Russia has an absolute priority to continue to develop the AZRF and will continue to invest to make sure it is safe and secure. Russia will be determined to ensure that China’s access to the AZRF will have the approval of Russia. And it will be interesting to watch how other states such as Saudi Arabia are becoming more involved in Russian infrastructural projects.
The US and NATO allies are reframing the Arctic as region of high priority. It is recognised that the Arctic is a highly competitive space and that there are fundamental interests at stake – resources, transport, strategic access, and communication (including satellite coverage and underwater cables). Both Russia and NATO will be investing more time and attention in patrolling, surveying, and defending their core interests. And all of this will coincide with the Arctic’s indigenous peoples who remain determine to ensure that their interests and wishes are heard and respected.
- China claims that the Arctic region, like outer space, belongs to all humanity. How would you interpret this expression of China?
China considers the Arctic Ocean – especially the Central Arctic Ocean – to be a strategic frontier. And indeed the CAO are international waters. China is a signatory to the Central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement alongside others including the EU. Like the EU, China will be keen to ensure that its interests are recognised and respected.
China has also sought to develop and deepen relations with Arctic states such as Iceland and Finland and notably Greenland and Canada where it has sought to invest in mining and rare earth minerals. Some of these falls under the rubric of polar silk road, and while China’s attempts to invest and influence has not always worked – and even generated resentment against Chinese investment. But the direction of travel is set – China wants to be a great polar power and will use science diplomacy, economic investment, “circle of friends” and development of capabilities such as icebreakers. China might wish leverage further access to the Russian Arctic in return from continued purchasing of Russian oil and gas and long-term investment in infrastructure. Both China and Russia will be eager to avoid the Arctic Ocean becoming a “NATO Ocean”.
- The militarization of the Arctic states towards the region has begun to increase in recent times. How would you evaluate this militarization in the region?
The militarization of the region is not new given the Cold War history involving superpower rivalries. Nowadays from a NATO perspective, China is regarded as a multidomain challenger and a destabilizing force. The Russia-China strategic relationship might yet mutate to involve military training and engagement in the high Arctic even the Central Arctic Ocean. But that again will only happen under strict Russian supervision and carries with it dangers for Russia and its jealous sense of guardianship of AZRF. And NATO allies will remain deeply concerned about Russia’s military plans including missile defence and force mobilization. Russia will continue to approach the AZRF as a region requiring a “bastion of defence” with a strong commitment to access/area denial.
There is a real danger of flashpoints – Russia and Norway might clash over the future management of Svalbard. There is a real risk of military incidents at sea and in airspace close to Norway and Finland’s border with Russia. The Arctic Ocean might witness further tension over fishing and shipping access. We are likely to witness more incidents of GPS jamming, cyber-attacks, and sabotage of critical infrastructure such as underwater communication cables. Mischief-making will be prevalent by Russia as it seeks to make NATO allies as uncomfortable as it can in the Arctic region – and Russia will seek to target states that gave weapons to Ukraine including Arctic states such as Demark. The Baltic Sea will be another area of tension.
As you know, Finland and Sweden wish to join NATO. In 2022, Exercise Cold Response was held in northern Norway and over 30,000 troops participated from NATO and partner countries. This was the largest exercise of its kind and speaks to what is to come – the Arctic is a competitive and contested geopolitical space. The US has rediscovered the Arctic (beyond Alaska) and is committed to spending billions of dollars on military facilities and infrastructure, including its northern base in Greenland.
Prof. Klaus Dodds
Prof. Klaus Dodds is Executive Dean for the School of Life Sciences and Environment at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is also Editor in Chief for Territory, Politics, Governance (2019-) which is published by the Regional Studies Association. He has extensive experience of working with governments, commercial and parliamentary stakeholders. Public positions including acting as a specialist adviser to the UK Parliament, working with NATO’s Strategic Foresight Analysis and UK’s DEFRA on post-COVID futures. His academic and policy-related work addresses the contemporary geopolitics of borders, health, environment, and the Polar Regions.