Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts aimed at knowing if the Great Game moves to the Arctic by 2050. This is his first post in our EF blog inspecting the key players of the game.The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Melting ice is not the only thing to watch for in the Arctic region. Geopolitical stakeholders are positioning to take advantage of the newly accessible natural resources, fisheries and transportation routes in the high north, sending a signal that the “The Great Game” could be shifting to the Arctic.
The “Great Game,” describes the power struggle between great nations as a “game of sorts.” Originally it represented the geopolitical struggle between British and Russian Empires over territories, transit routes and natural resources in Central Asia. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1990’s, a “New Great Game” seemed to emerge, as Western Powers strategically befriended the oil and resources rich nations of the former Soviet Republics. Again, Central Asia became the center of geopolitical strategy and conflict, and this time with new players; Russia, China and North America.
Currently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is expanding beyond Central Asia through the “Ice Silk Road”, while Russia continues to invest heavily in transportation infrastructure to support the opening trade routes in the Arctic region. There are signals that The Great Game is quickly moving outside the sphere of the Central Asian Heartland, all the way to the High North.
As ice-free zones in the Arctic circle continue to widen year after year, Russia, China, North American and European nations are quickly mapping out and implementing strategies to gain access to undiscovered natural resources, fisheries, trade routes, and strategic geographical and military positions. Unlike the original Great Game, potential conflicts may be mitigated by The Arctic Council, which was created in 1996 as a forum for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states. On the surface it seems nations are cultivating a collaborative environment based on the rule of law, however, several nations have already taken strategic steps to secure and expand their piece of the Arctic, increasing the potential for conflict in the region.
Russia claims that the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects Northeast Asia with Northwestern Europe, has been historically established as part of the Russian Federation. With the NSR opening, transportation would be diverted from the Suez Canal, reducing travel time from 15 to 10 days. The NSR would also provide Russia with direct access to the Pacific Ocean, increasing the viability of extracting and exporting oil and gas and other natural resources from the Arctic.
China is forming strategic bilateral partnerships to expand its sphere of influence on the region. China claims to be a “near Arctic state" and in 2018 unveiled the “Polar Silk Road,” an extension of the BRI. China continues to legitimizes itself as an important player in the Arctic region through financial investments in Russia and expanding scientific research in Norway and Iceland.
The Western Powers are taking a more cautious and measured approach in the Arctic region. North American nations have established a 5-year moratorium (ending in 2021) on offshore drilling in the Arctic, due to growing environmental concerns and a shift in focus on renewable energy sources. The United States and Canada also favor stakeholder cooperation to ensure that transit routes remain open and safe for international trade.
Canada, Denmark and Russia have made well-researched claims of ownership of the North Pole, with the intention of extending their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to secure the future rights to newly accessible natural resources and fisheries. Norway has also petitioned the U.N. to extend their EEZ. Six Arctic indigenous communities have Permanent Participation Status with the Arctic Council. However, without a stakeholder nation champion, the role that Indigenous people play in shaping Arctic geopolitics may be severely limited.
As the melting ice opens up the Arctic region to increased exploration and exploitation, geopolitics in the Arctic region will continue to heat. Although Russia, China, North America and European nations claim to favor a rule-of-law based approached to Arctic development, there are signals that the Great Game is being played in the Arctic, with increasing conflict over stakes in future transit routes, fisheries and natural resources as they become more accessible.