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What is the continued future trajectory of the region?

Posted By Tyler Mongan, Friday, March 20, 2020

Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program continues his futuristic exploration to the Arctic region in his third post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


The Arctic region is currently demilitarized, largely un-commercialized and has limited infrastructure. Currently the Arctic Council has limited ability to balance new economic developments, environmental protection, and geopolitical competition. The council’s role will remain limited with a focus on ensuring that transportation, resource extraction, and scientific exploration remain safe and open. However, if an expanded scope of governance does not emerge in the region, there will be growing tensions over military exercises, resource ownership, and environmental stewardship.


Arctic Sea Route usage will continue to grow, especially along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap. Russia will expand its already dominant capabilities by increasing the capacity of sea routes to harbor more foreign flag ships. Cooperation between Russia and China, as part of the Arctic Silk Road, will increase shipping infrastructure development and resource extraction projects. Shipping transit fees will allow Russia to diversify its economy away from energy resources and circumvent US sanctions. As the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Routes open, shipping will be diverted away from the Panama Canal and Suez Canal trade routes, resulting in decreased shipping time and cost from East to West coast of US, and from Northeast Asia into Northern Europe, US, and Canada.


Military operations will expand to increase “security” in the region. The US will seek a renewed military interest in the Bering Straits and the GUIK as strategic choke points in response to increased Russian and Chinese activity. This will require the US to develop new military bases and vessels, while increasing military cooperation with their allies. Other Arctic states will need to adjust and adapt to the growing tension, increasing the likelihood that NATO will be invited by Norway and Iceland to play a more significant role in maintaining stability in the region. Rising military tensions will be buffered by economic and natural resource interests.


Resource Extraction is currently constrained by profitability, limited Infrastructure, and safety concerns. Ice-free summers will allow the development of new infrastructure to support mining operations. Low oil costs, larger ships, and decreased shipping time will increase the financial and logistical feasibility of natural resource extraction.


The drive for oil and gas resources in the region will continue to be stalled by a complex cost-benefit analysis equation. Globally, countries will expand their renewable energy demand, reducing the pressures on oil and gas production. Arctic resources will be an essential part of Russian geopolitical strategy and outside investment will expand their oil and gas developments. These developments will initially be slowed by Arctic State environmental concerns and western sanctions, but will speed up as Russia expands its commercial infrastructure in the region.


Fisheries will continue to adapt to the warming waters, driving fish north. Fishing vessels will brave climate challenges to chase fish migrations, resulting in conflicts in EEZ. The Increase in fisheries micro-conflicts will challenge the durability of the Arctic Council.


International cooperation on scientific research in the region will grow in importance. Scientific exploration will increase the development of polar-fit stations, technology and communication systems. The strategic location of the Arctic for satellite access will lead to the development of polar stations for collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data. More accurate science and data will support infrastructure development and investment decisions, while also growing the connection between science, business and policy. China will become a bigger player in the region as it expands its Arctic research partnerships.


Publicly Arctic nations will continue to support a de-politicized, de-militarized and consensus-based approach to activity in the region. At the same time, strategic competition will increase as military exercises expand, commercial activity infrastructure develops, economic and scientific partnerships are formed, and EEZ resource ownership is disputed. Open communication and open seas, within a backdrop of increasing military presence, will be essential ingredients in maintaining stability and security in the region. If cooperation remains beneficial and increases resilience, then it will be sustained. If not, then geo-political competition could act to destabilize the Arctic region.


© Tyler Mongan 2020

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