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.