Global warming and cold war: what does the Arctic melting mean for Europe and for the world?

The tragic environmental consequences of global warming are now well known, and there is ample public discussion regarding what to do about it. However, a less talked about aspect of this change is its geopolitical consequences, especially in the case of the Arctic ice-cap thawing. Indeed, the Arctic melting will have, and already has, an impact on the power balances and represents an opportunity for several countries – but one country’s opportunity is another country’s danger. What are the stakes of the Arctic melting?

The Roads of the Arctic

The Arctic does not belong just one country. In 1991, the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, was created, gathering all the countries with sovereignty over the lands within the Arctic circle. The eight member countries are Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland and the Faeroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, and the United States (because of Alaska). The council also includes representatives of the indigenous people of the Arctic, as well as several observers, including France, Germany, the UK, China, Japan, etc.

As of today, there are already straits in the Arctic serving as maritime routes, but they are currently rather unimportant and are not yet a strategic point. Moreover, the ice floe obviously makes it very difficult to travel in this area. But, as the ice in the Arctic circle is melting, the opening of new shipping routes is to be expected. This would additionally raise the questions of whether the waters of the Arctic are national or international waters – different countries may be expected to have diverging views on the matter…For example, in 2010, a treaty settled a territorial dispute between Russia and Norway over the Barents Sea dating back to the Soviet era.

The resources of the Arctic raise interest…

Aside from its important fishing resources, the Arctic Circle is estimated to hold 13% of the Earth’s oil reserves and almost a quarter of its untapped gas resources, making it a very interesting area. Most of it is believed to be located offshore. However, as of today, technology is the biggest obstacle to energy exploitation in the Arctic. First, in order to function year-round, it would require pipelines which would have to cover very large distances in extreme temperatures. Moreover, navigating the Arctic and having a lasting presence in the area requires icebreakers, many of which are nuclear powered. As Charles K. Ebinger and Evie Zambetakis explain in their article “The geopolitics of Arctic melt”, capabilities vary greatly between the various Arctic nations, which Russia for example having 20 icebreakers while Canada has 12 and the US only one; and given the constraints of the economic crisis and the consequent budget restrictions, it is unlikely that icebreaker building will be a priority any time soon, which means that Arctic massive exploitation is not to be expected in the near future.

However, with the ice thawing in the Arctic circle, it can indeed be expected to become a more utilized commercial and strategic point in the years to come.

…and countries are already starting to place their pieces on the chessboard

In August 2019, when Donald Trump mentioned being interested in buying Greenland, it was largely seen as yet another one of the American President’s nonsensical whims or communications fail and dismissed as him being out of touch with reality. However, the US’ interest in Greenland is actually very strategic: Trump’s administration’s concern is with Russian and Chinese ambition in the area.

Indeed, China also has interests in the Arctic: the country has referred to itself as a “near Arctic State” in its Arctic Policy paper, a white paper on the Arctic, and is looking to increase its economic influence in the area by establishing a “polar silk road” as part of the Belt Road Initiative, also called New Silk Roads, a megaproject for a network of economic routes and infrastructures financed by China in partnerships with 70 Asian, African, and European countries. China’s involvement in the Arctic is not new, but it has become more active in the last decades, notably by launching the Xue Long, the first Chinese icebreaker to traverse the Northeast Passage, in 2012, by becoming an observing state in the Arctic council in 2013, while increasingly using the area for commercial routes, research and exploration.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the main Arctic country in Asia and China’s long -time rival: Russia. Although it is officially part of the BRI, Russia feels threatened by China’s New Silk Roads and even more so by Chinese ambitions in the Arctic. Operation Arktika 2007, the first ever crewed descent to the ocean bottom of the North Pole, was a strong symbolic moment for Russia as it dropped a tube containing a titanium Russian flag at the bottom of the ocean, and this operation was made possible partly by Arctic shrinking. Now, Russia is as determined as ever to protect its interests in the Arctic. In reaction to China’s New Silk Roads, Russia has strengthened its bilateral relations with its traditional ally and other rival of China, India. In 2018, Russia announced that it would allow India access to Russian shipping routes in the Arctic, and that the two countries would partner up in gas exploration in the Arctic. Vladimir Putin has said that given climate change, “the possibilities of using the Northern Sea Route are increasing”. Russia has also recently taken steps to remilitarize the Arctic by creating an Arctic command in 2015 and re-opening old bases – and opening new ones – in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, the cornerstone of China’s Arctic strategy is Iceland, which is at the other end of the Northern Sea Route, became in 2013 the first European country to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China, and regularly organizes joint programs with China.

It’s worth noting that, while China and Russia are currently the most active players, the Arctic can also represent a strategic area for Europe. EU member States Sweden, Denmark and Finland are fully part of the Arctic Council, and several EU members like France, Germany, or the UK are observing members, but the EU as a whole is not, as it was blocked by Canada in 2013.  The EU is a major destination for goods from the Arctic, and Norway, though not part of the EU, accounted for about 30% of EU gas imports in 2018 – this is significant as the first supplier is Russia; the EU could probably benefit from diversifying its imports and relying less on Russia.

Moreover, as the goals of the EU’s arctic policy include the protection of the Arctic and the sustainable exploitation of its resources, it may become difficult as the Arctic melts and become increasingly used for trade and security, which will inevitably have an environmental impact.

Thus, while the prediction of an “Arctic scramble” may be yet a bit of an exaggeration, it seems likely that the Arctic is bound to take an increasingly important place in international politics and in powerful countries’ politics. The Arctic shrinking already has irreversible environmental consequences, but the geopolitical stakes are not to be neglected.

Par Noémie Chemla, from our partner Courrier d’Europe