The Arctic as a Theater of Great Power Politics

Photo by LCDR Steve Wheeler

Nations have begun to engage in a modern gold rush over the region’s unclaimed territory, natural resources, and strategic position, beyond economic motivations nations such as the United States, Russia, and China are competing in the region to project military supremacy and seek more power. 

The US Navy recently released its updated Arctic strategy, which calls for a new focus on competition with Russia and China in the region. The document, called “A Blue Arctic” stresses that, without sustained American naval presence and partnerships in the Arctic Region, peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China. Whereas Russia and China have combined their efforts to maximize the Arctic’s potential,  before the drastic worsen of relations with the US, in spite the close ties with Russia, China takes other initiative too, such as infrastructure development , outside Russia’s Economic zone , showcase China’s  resistance to be too reliant on any other country in such a strategically important issue. Russia also sees huge value in the Arctic and views it as its strategic backyard. The Arctic accounts for 10 per cent of Russia’s GDP, and the 2019 release of a revised Arctic development strategy to 2035 reinforced its economic and political significance. Russian policy posture of developing Yamal LNG and opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a global shipping artery sets the course for Russia on the Arctic’s geopolitics. Similarly, the revival of the Northern warships shows expectancy to counter the maritime threats coming from the United States. Meanwhile, the US approach is likely to challenge the Russian claims on NSR and Arctic militarization in the context of Sino-Russian cooperation. Whereas The actions and rhetoric of the United States, China, and Russia have and will continue to influence each other in the region.

Why Artic Geopolitics

In 1959 Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington DC with around twelve countries, but 

The contradictory thing about this treaty is the claimed of these countries, weren’t abolished just merely suspended for certain amount of period. In which it has been said that if this treaty is not renewed in the future, then they can legally make territorial claims on it.

Currently, under a treaty called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 

(UNCLOS), signatory countries can exploit resources from the seabed out to 370 kilometers. 

off their shorelines. But if a country can provide evidence that geological features 

on the seabed located farther out from that 200-mile limit are connected to the nation’s 

continental landmass, then the country’s jurisdiction can be expanded deeper into the sea.

A landmark U.S. Geological Survey report from 2008 estimated that the Arctic could hold ninety billion barrels of oil, 669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and forty-four billion barrels of natural gas liquids, suggesting the total value of the region’s resource wealth could run into the trillions of dollars. These figures understandably caught the attention of national governments in the Arctic Circle. Access to these fossil fuels would help diversify energy supply and improve national security by reducing reliance on imports from potential global trouble spots.

Several nations posit that this ridge is an extension of their continental shelf, a claim that could grant them access to larger areas of Arctic seabed, and thus, vast mineral wealth.

However, the split up of the Arctic isn’t likely to happen very soon. For one thing, gathering. 

evidence about the seafloor, crafting detailed reports and wading through the intricate 

science of nations’ claims is an intensive procedure that’s only just begun.

Non-binding nature of Arctic Council resolutions and the lack of enforcement powers limit 

the body’s ability to regulate the conflict at a time when peaceful negotiation and cooperation might be needed the most. The legal protections for the Arctic and its resources are no longer as effective in preventing competition, the admittance of  Asian countries i.e. China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Singapore—as Observer states to the Arctic Council in 2013 significantly expanded the geopolitical landscape of the Arctic, with new players and commercial relationships emerging in the Arctic, there has been an attendant increase in international tensions.

In the recent time Arctic region has become the one of the foremost reasons for the disastrous impact of climate change, rising temperatures are rapidly changing the Arctic’s physical geography, melting polar ice caps is becoming a key stage for global competition ,nations has begun to engage in annexing the region’s unclaimed territory, natural resources, and strategic position also unlock new economic opportunities and gain the strategic upper hand at the top of the world.

Warmer temperatures are destroying many of those old routes, and opening new, longer-distance, seaways in their foothold. Recently a massive iceberg the size of Greater London has broken off an ice shelf in Antarctica after years of cracking.

These shortcuts could reduce the distance between Europe and Asia by up to 40 percent. With 90 percent of world trade being moved by sea, even a limited uptick in their use could have a significant effect on global economics.

The conflict in the Arctic Circle contrast many of the dynamics present in the South China Sea conflict, in which a competition over admittance to strategic positions and trade routes has expanded into a more manifest conflict between great powers who see each other’s actions as actively hostile, non-Arctic nations, like China, grow interested in the region. They are never going to be an Arctic country, but they have money. They will use that soft power to create alliances and all other kinds of ways to be in the Arctic.

Therefore, arctic region hold a great significance in today’s time even Arctic region has become more relevant for nation countries, melting ice may give more opportunities for the exploitations of the resources by the nations, even despite knowing the fact that certain countries can never be become the part of the arctic state they still hold a large interest in geopolitics of the Arctic region.


The Evolving China-Russia Cooperation

As the liquefying of the Arctic has increased its geopolitical prominence and potential economic viability, Russia and China have emerged as major players in the future of the region. In the past three decades, the steady China–Russia ‘quasi-alliance’, despite changes in leadership, national economic models, and even political systems, has largely been underestimated by the Western powers.

Russia and China share a mutual aspiration to challenge the norms of the Western hegemony international system. But their relationship is complex, with remaining mistrust on both sides.

Russia views China’s economic ambitions in the region with suspicion. In 2012, Russia blocked Chinese vessels from operating in the NSR, causing China to suspend its research activities during its fifth Arctic expedition. In 2014, when international sanctions were enacted against Russia over its Crimea annexation, Russia revolve sharply toward China as other partners. 

in the Yamal project such as ExxonMobil and Eni suspended cooperation. China’s Silk Road Fund stepped in to purchase a 9.9 percent stake in the Yamal project, bringing the total stake of Chinese ownership to 29.9 percent.

At present, Russia is prohibited and isolated by the seven other Arctic states (Arctic 7) in the Arctic, and Russia’s Arctic strategy has also been deprived. To realize its Arctic plans, Russia badly needs non-Western partners to jointly develop the Arctic. Therefore, Russia sees China as a suitable partner. Whereas, for China collaboration with Russia is both an opportunity and a challenge, and China needs to handle it carefully to avoid being banished by other countries in the Arctic.

Russia did not care much about the sanctions imposed on them, despite they are making more efforts to improve domestic Arctic relations with countries like China and prodding them to take more initiatives for Russia’s developing project. The cooperative relations among the two are turned out to be more sort of win- win situation, as it will help China shorten transportation times and secure energy supplies, while also helping Russia gain capital, techniques, and infrastructure support for its Arctic projects. The success of the Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) project has offered a good example of energy cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic.

Despite the undeniably closer ties between Russia and China since 2014, mutual interests are evolving that may lead to shifts in the balance of their relationship. the “Polar Silk Road” may have been coined by the Chinese, but the idea originated from a Russian invitation to jointly develop the NSR as early as 2015.Russia has been operating from a position of weakness on the Northern Sea Route’s development, whereas China operates from a position of strength Even if they  routinely boast about their high levels of cooperation, the former is taking steps to diversify its options by investing in indigenous capabilities and pursuing bilateral cooperation beyond Russia For now, Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic is a practical and even mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides a simple calculative of Russia possessing the geographic proximity and expertise to develop the NSR and China possessing the economic means to support such an attempt. What may change the circumstances of their relationship in the long term are mark that China is enclosing its Russian partnership with other options (e.g., indigenous icebreaker development, building bilateral relationships with other Arctic states) while maintaining its superior economic standing. Meanwhile, Russia 

faces an opening of Arctic routes, which it currently lacks sufficient capital to shape and control.

The US Strategy

Many fear that strategic competition between the US and China threatens longstanding regional cooperation and stability in the Arctic. But if they recognize their own political and economic significance and work collectively, the Nordic states and Canada can still play an instrumental role in steering the region’s future away from confrontation. New geopolitical tensions between the United States and China in the Arctic are another sign that the

exceptionalism of low security tension that the region has long enjoyed is now in jeopardy. By introducing China as “a Polar Great Power” in 2017, Xi Jinping indicated a new foreign.

policy role for the Arctic. In 2018 followed by a White Paper on China´s Arctic Policy. This action exploded later in a heavy American reaction.

One way to shake off binary thinking on US–China strategic competition and recognize room for manoeuvre against big power pressure is for Arctic states to realize the significance of their economic connectivity, China is accused of attempting to interfere and influence the Arctic in suppressive and improper ways, for example to lure Greenland into mining adventures and to try to buy Iceland and to prepare Iceland as a Chinese infrastructure hub.

in the Arctic region. China does play an increasing important role. But China is aware of the limits. And China is much concerned to keep its official activities to look as low key as possible and thereby try to avoid any unnecessary provocations primarily in connection to the US. In the Arctic, the United States sees China as a potentially destabilizing force, with the economic and military power to try to bend the established order to its liking. U.S. should also recognize that engaging with China in the Arctic does not have to be a win-or-lose proposition.

There are opportunities to cooperate—on climate change, for example, or pollution control.

China has already played a key role in international agreements to protect Arctic fisheries and to create maritime shipping regulations. On paper, at least, both China and the United States are committed to ensuring the Arctic remains a region of peace and stability. Their respective policy and legislations, presence, and influence in this region, engagement with international and regional institutions will be unfolded in this report before yielding to a discussion on the divergence and convergence of interests between China and United States in the Arctic. It can be concluded that there exist lots of divergence of interests between the two. Meanwhile, the Arctic is an arena where the U.S. and China, for the most part, enjoy converging interests, such as on issue areas that touch upon aspects of the law of the sea—be it conservation and climate change, marine scientific research, or construction of port and infrastructure facilities.

China and the United States should aim to achieve cooperative activities, particularly on research, which could play a useful role in stabilizing the troubled state of their current ties.

The Ukraine conflict, while severing partnerships between researchers inside and outside of Russia across many fields of science, has a particularly profound impact on climate science in the Arctic, in which China and the United States could work together. China has the potential to be a strong partner for the United States if it can match up its own interests in the Arctic with the United States’ interests and, together, address questions that are important to both nations.

The future of the Arctic’s great power game

The Arctic’s great power game is an ongoing process where the USA, China, and Russia are all trying to assert their dominance over the region. As the Arctic ice continues to melt, new shipping lanes and natural resources are becoming accessible, making the region an attractive target for these global powers.

While it is difficult to predict the exact future of this great power game, the Arctic will continue to be an important strategic region in the coming decades. With the potential for new shipping routes, access to natural resources, and the possibility of military deployment, the stakes are high for all involved.

One potential outcome is increased cooperation between the nations, with the development of shared regulations and agreements for the region. This would be a positive step towards protecting the fragile Arctic environment and ensuring that the region is developed sustainably.

However, there is also the possibility of increased tensions and conflicts between the powers, as they compete for control over the Arctic’s resources and strategic advantages. This could lead to a dangerous escalation of tensions and potential military conflict.

Ultimately, the future of the Arctic’s great power game will be determined by the actions and decisions of the USA, China, and Russia, and their willingness to work together towards a shared vision for the region.

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