Home / Articles / The Arctic: Global Warming and Heated Politics
The Arctic, a vast sea historically trapped in ice for most of the year, has long been an object of fascination for explorers. The search for a shortcut from Europe to Asia began as early as the 15th century by Spanish and Portuguese ships commanded by such luminaries as Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus, with the tempo increasing in the mid-19th century. Not a few, like the ill-fated British expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845, died in the effort. In 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage, and three years later, an American, Robert Peary, and his crew reached the North Pole.
A polar maritime route has several advantages: It is 30-40 percent shorter than the alternate route through the Suez Canal, thereby enabling goods to be transported back and forth faster while saving fuel and reducing environmental costs. Unlike Suez, the route does not pass though the perennially politically unstable Middle East and, as least as yet, there have been no pirate attacks. The risks of relying too heavily on Suez came sharply into focus in March 2021 when a large container ship ran aground in the canal; all navigation through the waterway ceased, blocking the passage of over 400 ships with concomitant disruptions to global supply chains and the loss of millions of dollars of revenue. Absent a polar route, the only alternative from Asia to Europe is a lengthy passage around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the desire to avoid doing so having been the reason for the creation of the Suez Canal.
However, the polar route can also be expensive. Ships must be equipped to cut through even moderate ice depths, defined as those of three feet or less, and weather conditions are unpredictable. Judging exactly when conditions will allow passage has been as much an art as a science, and until recently, nearly every year brought stories of a vessel trapped in heavy ice having to radio for specially configured ice breakers. In order to be commercially feasible, ports must be developed along the passage, yet the population is sparse and its needs minimal. At points along the more southerly Northern Sea Route, the depths are too shallow for large container vessels. In short, the economies of the route depend on weather conditions and the price of the commodities to be transported.
In response to concerns for cooperation to ensure sustainable development and to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, the eight states that border the Arctic (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, U.S) came together in 1996 and signed the Ottawa Declaration to form the Arctic Council. As a forum, the council does not have a programming budget, and cannot even enforce whether its recommendations and guidelines are carried out: It is the responsibility of member states to do so. Decisions are made consensually. The charter explicitly excludes matters pertaining to military activity, though a military dialogue does seem to have existed in the past. A permanent secretariat was established in Tromsø, Norway, with meetings of the council itself held every two years in a different capital. The chair of the council rotates among the members, also every two years, and will be held by Russia from 2021 to 2023.
Great Power Competition
According to data from the World Economic Forum, Arctic sea ice is melting faster than previous climate models predicted, with temperatures rising by one degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) every decade, and even more over the Barents Sea and around Norway’s Svalbard archipelago (1.5 C/2.7 F). Even if all greenhouse gas emissions cease, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free by 2050. As warming temperatures mean that polar routes could be utilized for longer periods of the year and global competition for energy resources increases, so will competition to gain as much advantage as possible. In June 2020, it was estimated that about 13 percent of the region’s oil resources and 30 percent of its natural gas resources remained undiscovered. Desires for cooperation to protect the international commons areas began to be eclipsed by emphasis on sovereign rights.
Russia, which has the largest Arctic border and the bulk of the region’s population, began to assert its position early on. Depending on how one measures the Arctic, about two million of the four million residents, or, using a broader definition, seven out of its ten million, live in Russia’s part, an advantage that Moscow is keen to make the most of.
In August 2007, a Russian submersible with a mechanical arm dropped a specially made rust-proof titanium flag onto the seabed of the North Pole, with Russian state media reporting that this provided the foundation for the country’s claim to more than a million square kilometers of the oceanic shelf. Other countries demurred. The Canadian foreign minister commented, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t just go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory,’” and a U.S. State Department spokesperson added, “I’m not sure of whether they’ve put a metal flag, a rubber flag, or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. Either way, it doesn’t have any legal standing or effect on this claim.”
Subsequent actions indicated an intent to restrict freedom of the Arctic seas. Moscow has reactivated and modernized Arctic military bases that had languished after the end of the Cold War, assigned new forces to them, and upgraded military exercises and training operations in the area. In 2017, the Duma enacted a law to restrict loadings of coal, oil, and natural gas at ports along the Northern Sea Route that connects the Kola Peninsula with the Bering Strait, a 55-mile stretch of water shared by Russia and Alaska, to Russian-flagged vessels. In 2019, Moscow demanded, in contravention of international law, that other nations provide 45 days advance notice for naval ships to use the route, that they provide the name and rank of each vessel’s master along with all the ship’s specifications, and that they take aboard a Russian pilot. It asserted the right to use military force against ships that fail to comply with the demands. According to Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, Russian warships have ordered Alaskan fishing crews out of America’s exclusive economic zone in the Bering Sea. Russia has also linked its Northern Sea Route with China’s Maritime Sea Route. Despite the degree of close cooperation between Beijing and Moscow, China’s stance is that the Arctic should be treated as global commons, and has supported the unhindered passage of maritime traffic in the area, even as it rejects the same right in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
China Asserts its Presence
In 2011, Chinese real estate investor and former government official Huang Nubo struck a provisional $8.8 million deal for 300 square kilometers in Iceland for a hotel and golf course in a strategically located spot. Given Iceland’s precarious financial position at the time, the offer must have been tempting, despite misgivings about the large size of the requested plot and the improbability of developing a successful resort in the area. Huang’s offer was ultimately turned down, with the country’s interior minister telling the Financial Times that there was a “need to be aware of the international ramifications.”
Beijing also folded the Arctic into the ambitious globe-girdling Belt and Road Initiative that General Secretary Xi Jinping inaugurated in 2013. Designating the route as the “Polar Silk Road,” the government pressed for China’s inclusion in the Arctic Council. In the same year, it became one of six non-Arctic states approved for observer status, meaning that the PRC can participate fully in the council’s discussions but cannot vote. Preparatory to its bid for observer status, China increased its diplomatic contacts with the Nordic countries and made significant investments in them, not without arousing misgivings therein, as in Greenland. The PRC has established a research station in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway and another in Iceland. As Danish intelligence has pointed out, China’s scientific research in the Arctic is being used for military purposes.
In 2018, the PRC announced its Arctic policy, stating that although countries outside the region do not have territorial sovereignty in the area, they do have rights in respect to “scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, and laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas.” Beijing also claims countries “have rights to resource exploration and exploitation in the area” as well as liberty of access and entry. Declaring that China is an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs, the document asserted its status as a “near Arctic state,” prompting then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reply, “The shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. China claiming otherwise entitles them to exactly nothing.”
United States Plays Catch-up
Washington has been criticized for doing far too little to address Arctic climate change issues and for neglecting the area until it began to feel threatened by Russian and Chinese expansionism. Remedial measures have been slow in coming. In 2020, the Trump administration created the position of U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, and 2021 brought a proposal to establish an ambassador-at-large for Arctic affairs, though a proliferation of titles does not in itself mean anything has or will be accomplished. The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released by the Biden administration in March 2021, though referencing concerns with Russia and China, does not specifically mention the Arctic. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended the May 2021 meeting of the Arctic Council where, according to the Associated Press, he sparred firmly but politely with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was no mention of a meeting with the Chinese representative. Blinken reportedly glossed over American opposition to Russia’s increased military activity in the area and Russia’s proposal to renew a long-suspended military dialogue within the Council.
Recent efforts have involved increased activities with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter expansionist moves in the area. Five of the eight Arctic states, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States, are members of NATO, and in 2018, Trident Juncture, the organization’s largest exercise since the Cold War, was held in the Baltic and Norwegian Seas with all 29 members, with Sweden and Finland participating. Actions with individual states, as seen below with regard to Greenland, have also been taking place. All U.S. services have conducted increased exercises and training operations in the region, some in conjunction with forces from NATO Allies and non-NATO Nordic countries that aim to rebuild Arctic-specific warfighting skills that deteriorated after the Cold War.
Greenland in Focus
Professor Marc Lanteigne of Tromsø University, an expert on Arctic issues, raised the question, “Whose Arctic security is it anyway?” The prospect of Chinese investment and tourism is attractive to many areas, with Greenland a particularly striking example. A semi-autonomous part of Denmark, it is much poorer than Denmark yet possesses striking mineral wealth, including rare earths that China is eager to have access to. Under the terms of association, Greenland manages its own economic matters, while Denmark retains responsibility for Greenland’s security, leaving room for differences of opinion on which category Chinese investment falls under. Separately, a defense treaty between Denmark and the United States allows Washington control of Thule Air Force Base, home to part of America’s ballistic missile early-warning and space surveillance systems. Thule also has a deep-water seaport. Should an independence movement in Greenland succeed, Denmark would lose its status as an Arctic state, as well as potentially threaten America’s continued use of the base. But Greenland might also lose the annual block grant of $575 million it receives from Denmark to fund basic services.
Concern that the PRC might intend to use Greenland as a stepping stone into the Arctic was enhanced by reports that a Chinese company would build or upgrade several airports there; it is believed that U.S. pressure on the Danish government led to Copenhagen’s decision to finance the projects. It also prompted then-President Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. purchase Greenland from Denmark, and the indignant rejoinder that, while Greenland was open for business, it was not for sale.
BBC has pointed out that, although governments are “grateful for Chinese aid, it comes at a price: China gets access to each country’s raw materials – minerals, metals, wood, fuel, foodstuffs. Still this doesn’t usually mean long-term jobs for local people. Large numbers of Chinese are usually brought in to do the work.” There are also concerns about damage to the environment. These were evident in the controversy about whether to approve a project by an Australian firm whose largest shareholder is the major Chinese rare-earth Shenghe Resources corporation. Proponents argued that there would be huge benefits to Greenland’s economy, opening the way to financial, and ultimately political, independence from Denmark. Opponents countered that it would deprive residents of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds as well as introduce dangerous pollution. The latter won: The pro-mining Siumut Party was defeated by the left-wing environmentalist Inuit Ataqatigiit Party in an April 2021 election.
Tensions between sovereign rights and commitment to the international commons in the Arctic, as elsewhere, are likely to continue. Given that the riches of the Arctic will become more easily accessible as the ice sheet diminishes, they may even be exacerbated. Managing these tensions will be difficult. The Arctic Council, whose charter specifically excludes military issues despite references to a past military dialogue and where decisions are made by consensus among all members, can be of limited value. Suspending China’s observer status in the council as a punitive measure for its actions in the South China Sea, as has been suggested, would be at best symbolic, even on the unlikely possibility that Russia would agree to it.
Whatever happens in private at council meetings, its public deliberations have been stunningly unhelpful to resolving issues, lost in a sea of virtue-signaling anodynes like incoming Chair Lavrov’s praise of a 10-year strategic plan that “reflects the shared values and joint aspirations of the Arctic States and the Permanent Participants to advance sustainable development, environmental protection and good governance in the Arctic.” If the Arctic is not to be lost to Russia and China, action must be taken—immediately. Governor Dunleavy has suggested an “American Suez” in the form of a deep-water port near the Bering Strait and a true fleet of ice-hardened vessels. An increased coast guard presence would also be helpful, particularly if fishing boats are being harassed. The August 2021 issue of the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute suggested the formation of an Arctic Command (ArcticCom) to ensure a coherent strategy in meeting challenges above the Arctic Circle. And there must be a firm commitment to keep shipping lanes open to defend the economic interests of the United States, other NATO members, and Japan. Not to do so would be to cede the economically and strategically crucial polar region to our adversaries.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 The other polar route, the Northwest Passage, runs close to Alaska and through the Canadian archipelago.