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Race to the Top: The Geostrategic Implications of the Melting Arctic

By Daniel Patrick Atchue

In August 2007, a Russian expedition of two submersible vessels descended 14,000ft below the North Pole to imbed a rust-proof titanium metal flag into the Arctic seabed. Aside from serving as a symbolic assertion of sovereignty, perhaps relying on the maxim qui prior est tempore potior est jure— “whoever is earlier in time is stronger in right,”—the planting of the Russian tricolor underscored the geostrategic significance of the Arctic in an era of unprecedented warming.

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report which found that the Arctic is warming two-to-three times faster than any other region on Earth. Since the turn of the millennium, temperatures in the Arctic have been higher than the global average. In 2019, surface temperatures there were the second warmest in recorded history. The region’s unique susceptibility to the effects of global warming may produce an ice-free Arctic Ocean within decades, opening a new frontier to significant investments in energy production, shipping, and fishing.

The Russian flag-planting spectacle, although symbolic, was designed to bolster the government’s disputed claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that bisects the Arctic Ocean, over which several Arctic states have lodged competing claims. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLS) provides states with an exclusive economic zone within 200 nautical miles from shore; a state may seek to extend the zone to a maximum of 350 miles if it can prove that the continental shelf extends further than the 200-mile delimitation. The demarcation of a state’s exclusive economic zone is strategically significant for coastal Arctic states because the UNCLS grants control over all living and nonliving resources within the exclusive zone. The Arctic contains vast fishing stocks, mineral deposits, and energy reserves which are ripe for exploitation. Together with the emergence of contested sea lanes, the economic opportunities associated with the melting Arctic may exacerbate great power rivalries in the decades ahead.

The Arctic is replete with untapped natural resources. The United States Geological Survey estimates that 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids may remain to be found in the Arctic. In a 2013 study evaluating the economic interests that will shape the Arctic’s future development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that Greenland has substantial deposits of uranium and iron ore. Furthermore, the island contains rare earth elements that are critical components of myriad electronic devises ranging from hybrid vehicle motors and fluorescent lightbulbs to rechargeable batteries and missile guidance systems. China, which already produces 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, is beginning to invest in Greenland and the Danish possession may serve as China’s gateway into the Arctic region.

Although not an Arctic littoral state, China has a substantial strategic interest in the future of the region. China has extended its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to encompass a Polar Silk Road consisting of investments in ports, railroads, undersea cables, and energy exploration. Furthermore, the Northern Sea Route—the stretch of the Arctic Ocean north of Russia—offers a faster and cheaper path to Western markets that allows Chinese ships to avoid piracy around the Horn of Africa and congestion in the Strait of Malacca.

The steady disappearance of sea ice and the concomitant opening of heretofore impassable shipping lanes has amplified disputes over the sovereignty of Arctic waters. Russia considers the Northern Sea Route to be internal Russian waters and requires traversing vessels to seek its approval and pay transit fees. The United States, for its part, contests Russia’s claim. Likewise, Canada regards the Northwest Passage to be internal waters over which it enjoys exclusive sovereignty, which the United States and European Union do not recognize. Although the UNCLS provides a legal framework governing territorial disputes and activity in the Arctic, the littoral Arctic states—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Russia, and the United States—established the Arctic Council in 1996 to provide a forum for diplomatic, environmental, and economic cooperation in the region. Despite the collective interest of states in avoiding confrontation, the melting Arctic has opened a new front for potential hostilities between great power rivals.

In September 2018, Russia and China held large-scale joint military exercises throughout Siberia and the Russian Far East. The exercises were indicative of Russia’s strategic priority in reasserting military parity with the West. Although Russia is the only non-NATO Arctic country, it maintains twenty-seven military bases above the Arctic Circle, more than double the amount in operation before 2007. It is also restoring Soviet-era airfields and ports in support of its Arctic operations. Conversely, the United States maintains just one base, an Air Force installation in Greenland, and Canada operates three small bases. Russia also operates the largest ice-capable fleet in the world—approximately sixty-one icebreakers and ice-hardened ships—while the United States only possesses two aging icebreakers. China, whose ongoing assertion of military hegemony in the South China Sea has elicited anxiety in the West, is attempting to extend its influence to the Arctic by ordering a second, $300 million ice-breaking research ship and continuing its strategic diplomacy.

In response to Russian and Chinese power plays in the Arctic, NATO continues to train for cold-weather conflict. Operation Trident Juncture, in October 2018, was the largest NATO training exercise since the end of the Cold War and simulated an enemy invasion of Norway. In addition, the United States re-established the Navy’s Second Fleet, which supports North Atlantic and Arctic operations, and awarded a contract to build as many as three new icebreakers for the U.S. Navy.

Despite its potentially catastrophic environmental implications, the melting of the Arctic offers substantial economic and strategic opportunities. However, interested states have already lodged competing territorial claims and the great powers have attempted to assert their dominance in the increasingly geostrategic region. Warming in the Arctic may foster a renewed Cold War at the top of the world.


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