a member of our Emerging Fellows
program detects the milestones that likely shape the futures of the Arctic region in his eighth
blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those
of the APF or its other members.
There are some key milestones that can serve as guideposts for determining a
nations success in the Arctic region as they move from the baseline to the
One of the key milestones for Russia would be 5-10% of shipping rerouted through
the NSR. This will diversify Russia’s economy and increase their control in the
region. A pathway to that metric requires a consistent trend of melting ice in
the region, which will support an increase in investor confidence in commercial
operations. It is predicted that an ice free Arctic could occur between 2030 and
2040. Ice is melting faster along the Northern Sea Route than other parts of the
Arctic. If this trend continues we will see more investor confidence in Russian
transportation infrastructure and natural resource extraction. Although
unlikely, another key milestone to look for would be a move to approve an
extension of Russia’s EEZ all the way to the center of the high north.
One of the key milestones for China’s success in the region is an increase in
Chinese yuan flowing into the region. China has already invested billions into
the region to support the development of a Polar Silk Road. The flow of yuan
into the region will be supported through bilateral partnerships. Some of the
biggest financial investments have occurred in Iceland, Greenland, Norway and,
to a large extent, Russia. A diversity of long-term bilateral agreements will
secure China’s place in the region as a near-arctic state. As Chinese money
increases its flow into the Arctic, China will become more deeply embedded in
the geopolitics of the region. Another sign that there is a trend towards
reaching this milestone is an increase in Chinese shipping and icebreaker
activity in the region supported by its satellite technology.
key milestone to look for that supports US success is a reversal of climate
change and a decrease of melting ice in the region. This would hamper Russian
and Chinese developments, while also reducing the need for a stronger Arctic
Council. This would also maintain the secure ice wall between Russia and the US,
blocking a transpolar route.
key milestone for European Nations would be a strong Arctic Council to increase
the capacity and capability to create legally binding agreements in the region.
The path to this milestone might require an increase in multilateral cooperation
to keep the Arctic open, sustainable and demilitarized. This milestone could
also be inspired by increase conflict over EEZ, fisheries, and strategic
military developments. To prevent these conflicts from escalating, the European
nations might demand stronger governance in the region.
A key milestone for Canadian success would be for the United Nations Convention
on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to confirm recognition of the outer limits of the
continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. While Canada supports an open and
cooperative Arctic, it also wants to maintain sovereignty in the region. Canada
aligns with the European Nations, supporting sustainable and environmentally
friendly economic developments. These aligned goals could increase support for a
favorable UNCLOS ruling and if a stronger Arctic Council develops it could also
move to recognize Canada’s desired future.
As nations strive for their preferred futures in the Arctic, not all these
milestones will be reached. There will be a dynamic balance of powers through
trade-offs, negotiations, and strategic conflicts. It will be difficult to
define which nations are “winning” and which nations are “losing.”
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.
Tyler Mongan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects change drivers that facilitate the Great Game in his second post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
It is estimated that the Arctic could experience ice-free summers as early as 2050.However, the changes in the region are not uniform, resulting in an uneven distribution of stakeholder nation accessibility to trade routes, fisheries, and trillions of dollars in natural resources. Although the Arctic is considered a single region, in reality it is a climate with diverse zones. The maritime areas are opening at a faster rate, specifically along the coasts of Norway and Russia. One of the more important geopolitical consequences of this uneven ice-melting is that the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which links Northeast Asia and Northwestern Europe, is rapidly increasing in accessibility. This will also reduce shipping times between Northeast Asia and Northeastern North America via the Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom (GIUK) Gap.
The opening of the NSR has allowed Russia and Norway to expand their Arctic operations over the past decade with investments in gas and oil infrastructure, deep-water ports, and arctic ships, including ice-breakers, that are essential for navigating the iceberg populated seas. These developments increase the potential for the NSR to become a viable alternative to the Suez Canal trade route, and could cut transportation times from 15 to 10 days.
On the opposite side of the circle, the Northwest Passage (NWP), primarily linking Canada, USA and Northeast Asia, is opening at a slower rate. Infrastructure Investment and resource accessibility in the region is more limited. Opening of the NWP, or even a Transpolar Passage, would benefit China’s trade operations and increase its role in the region. The uneven pace of ice melting favors investments in the Russian and Norwegian owned regions, with investment in North American regions remaining more uncertain.
Even with the increase in ice-free zones in the Arctic and the promise of shorter transportation times, the steady increase in vessels utilizing the routes must factor in new costs and risks into the investment equation. Access to new routes will be subject to transit and insurance fees, depend heavily on ice-breaker escorts and infrastructure, and will have limited search and rescue support.At the same time, the Arctic routes offer shipping companies the opportunity to utilize larger shipping vessels.Currently, ship capacity is constrained by the Straits of Malacca, the world’s second busiest waterway. With larger shipping vessels utilizing the Arctic sea routes, companies could offset the increase in costs by reducing the freight cost per unit.
Along with continued opening of new sea routes, stakeholder nations are also looking for opportunities to extend their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to claim a future stake in the resources hidden below the melting ice. It is estimated that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered gas are in the Arctic. Current Arctic mining operations of minerals, precious metals, and construction materials (rock, stone, sand, and gravel) could also expand.
Due to warmer waters pushing into the High North and changes in nutrient conditions and water currents, Arctic fisheries are transforming. Some harvest sites are experiencing an increase in stock productivity, while others are seeing a decline as fish migrate north to find colder water. For example, Greenland has seen an influx of Bluefin tuna and mackerel into their fishing region, boosting their export revenue. With the melting ice, fishing vessels will be able move further north to follow the changing migration patterns, but this could result in disputes over EEZ lines. If history repeats itself, we could see Cod War like scenarios.
If the ice continues to melt in the Arctic, competition in the region is more likely to be about access to transportation routes, oil/gas deposits, precious natural resources and fisheries, than it is about claiming new territory. The borders of stakeholder nations in the arctic region are well established. However, current organization structures, such as the Arctic Council and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), are weak buffers of potential Great Game conflicts.
The Arctic region is both an environmentally and geopolitically complex system; melting ice does not equal decreased costs and accessibility does not equal economic feasibility. A reversal of ice-melting trends would rapidly shift the trajectory of infrastructure development, sea route access, and fish migration patterns. And the hunt for trillions of dollars of undiscovered natural resources beneath the melting ice could be another Eldorado.
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.