The Arctic Circle - Wild West of the East
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
With the melting of ice in the arctic, the relative importance of the arctic circle is growing every year because of its enormous natural resources and strategic importance. Over the years, this part of the world, which was relatively less important for countries, is becoming a hotspot for the major conflicts in the 21st century. The Arctic Ocean, located near the north pole, is one of the smallest oceans in the world. Though covered with ice for the major part of the year, the region has 25% of the world’s proven hydrocarbons reserves like oil, natural gas and minerals. Major countries encircling the arctic ocean- the USA, Denmark (Greenland), Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland and Iceland- have already sent scientific expeditions to identify their continental shelf for claiming more territory as the ice melts.
The Arctic Ocean, with an area of 6.1 million square miles, is the northernmost body of water that encircles the Arctic region and flows beneath it. Although most of the region is covered with ice throughout the year, this trend is changing because of the rising global temperature and greenhouse gases. Further, it is home to a wide array of living species such as Polar bears, seals, fishes, walrus etc. About 4 million of the human population live near the arctic circle subsisting on a range of economic activities. Out of 4 million, 2 million people are from Russia, which also has about 53% of the arctic coastline. The region is enriched with 25% of the proven global hydrocarbons reserves with 15% of the oil reserves and 20% of the natural gas reserves. It also has a vast store of mineral wealth, including nickel, copper, tungsten, gold, diamond, uranium, etc. That is one of the reasons why Russia claims a major chunk of the arctic circle. Receding sea ice cover and permafrost thaw will influence accessibility to mineral and energy resources both on land and in the Continental Shelf in the future.
The strategic importance of this region can be divided into three parts- political, economic and environmental and military- and it can be further subdivided into country-specific interests.
As mentioned earlier, countries have begun to send expeditions to make claims over the continental shelf in the melting arctic region. It has already ignited friction among nations, as claims over the ocean are overlapping each other. For instance, the estimated continental shelf of Greenland and Russia overlap each other. Due to the melting of ice, the arctic region is now accessible for more part of the year, making it easier for Russia to use the Arctic region for navigation and exploration. Russia has large ice breakers vessels to break the ice and build a pathway for large cargo and exploration ships.
Presently, it takes about 48 days and 21,000 km to reach Rotterdam from China passing through the Malacca strait and the Suez canal. The same distance can be covered within 38 days through the Arctic Ocean, provided that it has better navigational facilities. It reduces the distance from 21,000 km to just 12,800 km. As the Russian side has the most developed and navigable areas, including ports and military bases, it would help Russia gain influence in this region. It would also decrease dependence on one route by companies.
Even China is looking forward to work with Russians to accrue benefits from this development. The region is an important part of its polar silk route. Adding to that, China is the second-largest trading partner of the EU, thus benefitting both China and Russia.
Russia already has soviet-era oil and gas pipelines reaching far off areas from the oil and gas fields in the arctic circle of countries like Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Germany in Europe, Turkey in West Asia and China in East Asia. These pipelines are further extended to other countries, which give Russia greater accessibility, unlike other players in the region. Due to this, Russia has an added advantage over these countries and it will further increase in the coming years because of the geopolitical transition.
ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL
The opening of the Arctic Navigation Area will immensely help companies to reduce their transportation cost and also decrease the travel time between the ports. It will also benefit countries of this region, especially Russia, to levy transit tax on commodities passing through the arctic sea.
Apart from the economic cost, it will also lessen the environmental cost of transportation as the shortened distance will help in the reduction of the use of hydrocarbons, which will eventually help in tackling climate change. However, there are many cases of oil spillage which may hurt the biodiversity of the Arctic region. Therefore the onus is on the countries and companies to show restraint on arbitrary and illegitimate use of the navigation area.
From the military point of view, all the countries are heavily investing in building military bases near the arctic circle to have greater control and more say in the region. The USA has a military base in Greenland and until recently, Finland has provided its land to the USA to build a military base near the Russian border. On the other hand, Russia has already constructed seven military bases since 2013 along the arctic coast. It has also planted its flag on the north pole to prove its dominance over the region. Russia, along with its military and technological capabilities, can rule the arctic region in the future. Apart from the military prowess, Russia will also have an upper hand in the diplomatic engagement with the allied nations as most of them, directly or indirectly, depend on the Russian export of oil and natural gas. For instance, Germany heavily depends on Russian exports of natural gas through the Nord Stream pipeline, which further extends into inner European nations.
Interestingly, China is also heavily investing in Russia’s strategic plan to accrue heavy benefits in the long run. Other nations are part of the NATO alliance that is looking forward to tackling the Russian influence in the region collectively. But given the differences between the allied nations and their dependence on Russian exports, it might be strenuous to act as one unit against Russia. For example, the US has a dispute with Canada over the Canadian Arctic archipelago, also known as the Northwestern Passage that connects the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Similarly, there is a dispute between Canada and Norway in the North sea. That is the reason why NATO has constantly refused to use the word “Arctic” in its official documents. The Arctic barely features on the policy radar in Washington DC.
Image credits: WP
THE WAY FORWARD
The Arctic will increasingly become a strategically important region for many of the world’s major powers. The possibility of decreasing ice coverage during the summer months, and advances in technology, means that shipping, natural resource exploration, and tourism could increase economic activity.
As Russia and China compete over economic and security influence across Eurasia, the Arctic is a region for global policymakers to watch.
Nayan Chandra Mishra
Hindu College, University of Delhi