Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program envisions the alternative future scenarios of the Arctic region in his fifth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Sustaining the current geopolitical system in the Arctic will become increasingly challenging. Alternative scenarios will be shaped by continued collaboration and/or growing strategic competition. Regardless of what emerges, the Arctic Council’s role in the region might be forced to either expand or become irrelevant. Five scenarios help frame what could arise in the region: (1) Sustained Current State, (2) Polar Cold War (3) Diplomacy Triumphs (4) Polar Commons, and (5) The Bering Plug.
A sustained current state would require the Arctic Nations to agree to keeping the Arctic open for the common good, while also yielding competition in favor of collaboration. However, the Arctic Council has limited powers to ensure that collaboration is sustained. Even if Arctic Nations verbally commit to cooperation, competition over sea routes and natural resources will continue to rise. The Arctic Council does not have the political or financial resources to mitigate the growing tension in the region.
A Polar Cold War might be on the Horizon. The US claim that the Arctic is in an “era of strategic competition” is a signal that tensions will grow in the region. Although the US is lagging behind in Arctic military developments it could shift course and seek to expand military operations in response to Russian and Chinese activities. China’s maritime access has several choke points, but these will be alleviated as scientific and commercial BRI partnerships with Russia, Finland and Iceland continue to expand. These partnerships could also lay the foundation for a wider military strategy and China’s Beidou-3 Satellite system is already in place to support the navigation of both missiles and Arctic ships. Russia’s military developments will expand to include the revitalization of cold war military installations. New airbases, radar stations and monitoring systems will bolster Russia’s already strong maritime presence in the Arctic. As the Polar Cold War scenario unfolds. The region will become militarized and Arctic Nations will seek to enclose their territories. The Arctic Council will play an increasingly smaller role in the region and bilateral and multilateral agreements will dominate.
A Diplomacy Triumphs scenario could emerge if the Arctic Council, or another multinational organization, is granted legal political powers to settle disputes and govern commercial and military operations in the region. In this scenario, as Arctic Nations pursue their national strategies, the tension in the region increases. However, diplomacy and legally binding cooperation keep things stable. Friction between Russia and US would become a norm, as Russia seeks to maintain its rights to a large portion of the Arctic and enclose its sea routes and territory.
To sustain a Polar Commons, the Arctic Nations agree to expand the role of the Arctic Circle to include legal governance over Arctic Circle developments. Military operations take the backseat to economic and scientific collaboration and cooperation. China expands the “Polar Silk Road” though bilateral and multilateral partnerships. The increased oversight and governance by the Arctic Council alienates Russia or the US, who are resistant to give up their rights to act unilaterally. In general, the Arctic is unenclosed, sea routes are open for international use, and economic developments are cooperative.
The rate of climate change and uneven ice melt could result in wildcard scenarios. Tides and wind could continue to create a much colder, ice covered Bering Strait. This Bering Plug is a growing possibility that would make access to, and development of the Northern Sea Route and North West Passage uncertain. Asian Nations would have inconsistent access to the new shipping route, decreasing China’s maritime interests in the region. This would reduce Russia’s profits from transportation tariffs and curtail Russia-China developmental partnerships, shifting focus to Russia-European Partnerships. The Bering Plug would also reduce Russia-US tension that is created by maritime boundary lines and military operations through the straights. Overall, a Bering Plug might reduce some of the competition and strategic positioning in the region. If this is the case, then the current role of the Arctic Council might look similar for several years into the future.
Regardless, The Arctic region will continue to change in both climate and geopolitical landscapes. The emergence of these alternative scenarios will depend on the desired future outcomes of the Arctic Nations and the interplay of their national strategies.