Conditions ripe for Polar Silk Road

Global tensions are spilling over into Arctic affairs. Environmental changes in the Arctic can shift international relations by raising the stakes associated with access to and control of the Arctic waters.

Melting polar_Arctic
Melting polar ice will have global economic and environmental ramifications. Image: Kathryn Hansen / NASA Goddard

Many people do not give the Arctic a second thought. But people the world over are affected in ways, large and small, by what is taking place in the North. As far back as 200 years ago, the British naval captain Edward Parry noted that a change in sea ice near Greenland had affected the quality of whale oil, and led to crop failures and colder summers far to the south. 

Similar connections can be seen today. Weather in the Northern Hemisphere has been widely affected as Arctic sea ice loss changed the patterns of the jet stream. This effect has produced cold winters in North America and East Asia. It is among the reasons China now considers itself a “near Arctic state”. Movement of water in the North Atlantic, driven in part by warmer Arctic waters, may affect global ocean circulation including the Gulf Stream that keeps Europe warmer than its latitude would suggest. An understanding of such meteorological connections is essential for accurate weather prediction, and for long-term planning and preparation for extreme weather.

The loss of Arctic sea ice amplifies global warming by allowing more of the Sun’s energy to be retained instead of reflected. Economic estimates of the cost of sea ice loss are as much as hundreds of billions of dollars. The change may be occurring in Arctic waters, but the entire globe will feel — and pay for — the effects.

Changing access to Arctic resources may also affect global commodities markets and create economic benefits. Liquefied natural gas from northern Siberia is already being shipped to East Asia and Europe, providing energy while tapping into the shipbuilding prowess of the Republic of Korea, and helping Russia maintain the Northern Sea Route as a viable transportation corridor.

Shipping through the Arctic, as distinct from shipping to and from Arctic destinations, has also attracted great interest, if not yet a huge increase in vessel traffic, due in part to variable ice conditions that make passage unpredictable and hazardous. For the longer term, Arctic shipping features prominently in strategies such as China’s One Belt One Road initiative, though no actual Arctic projects have so far been undertaken.

A changing Arctic may also shift international relations by raising the stakes associated with access to and control of Arctic waters. Apart from relatively minor maritime boundary disputes, international boundaries in the Arctic are fixed and universally recognised. The main unsettled issues concern the extended continental shelf and the overlapping claims of several countries to seabed resources

In a context of uncertainty, many countries are pursuing influence and engagement in a variety of ways, which include military, economic, scientific, and other forms. A changing Arctic Ocean is only likely to exacerbate both the uncertainty and the range and magnitude of responses around the Arctic and the world.

In the 1950s, the United States built an extensive radar detection system from Greenland to the Bering Strait, just as the Soviet Union used Novaya Zemlya to test nuclear weapons. Today, Russia maintains major naval bases on the Kola Peninsula, north of the Arctic Circle, and its Northern Fleet was raised to equal status as a fifth major military district in the country as of the start of 2021. Militarisation remains a concern for many, for example, in the United States’ claimed justification for increasing its military presence in the warmer parts of the region as a response to other countries’ actions. Moreover, nuclear submarines from the major powers can operate in these waters, with the noise from moving ice helping prevent sonar detection of submarines, providing a further incentive to use the Arctic Ocean for military purposes.

Arctic resources and access are behind at least some of these concerns as can be seen in two recent and prominent examples. The Polar Silk Road, the northern component of China’s vision for One Belt One Road, includes a spate of infrastructure proposals across northern Eurasia and entangles economic opportunity through shorter shipping routes with geopolitical aspirations. The difficulty of distinguishing between the interests of Chinese companies and those of the central government will make it all the harder to tell which is the overriding factor, at least for those outside of China.

The European Union and three Asian states joined six Arctic states to complete the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, a recognition of major non-Arctic interests in Arctic marine resources. Should fish species shift farther north and increase in abundance, pressure will likewise increase to turn a fishing moratorium into a fisheries management regime. Political disputes over other matters may clash with a need for economic and other partnerships in the Arctic development.

Arctic scientific research is relevant locally and regionally and is also growing in significance as a mode of international relations. This is both in response to change and as a way of exerting influence. Significantly, science is prominently featured in the Arctic policy statements of many non-Arctic countries such as China, India, Japan, and Korea, as is also the case for Arctic states.

Arctic research is costly, but the benefits can outweigh the cost. The Arctic Council’s Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation is an important step in this regard, as is the commitment to the joint scientific program being set up under the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement. 

Even high-quality science, however, will not necessarily translate to effective policies and practices without broader efforts to engage society and its leaders in recognising and addressing both threats and opportunities posed by change. International relations are of course shaped by circumstances around the world. The Arctic has in many ways remained apart from other clashes. In 1988, the Soviet Union sent icebreakers to assist Alaskans trying to free grey whales trapped in ice near Point Barrow, even as the Cold War continued. In 2018, Russia and the United States cooperated to propose Bering Strait shipping routes to the International Maritime Organisation despite clashing over Crimea and other issues. The Arctic states have shown an exemplary will to cooperate through the work of the Arctic Council while keeping security matters at arm’s length.

More recently, however, global tensions have spilled over into Arctic affairs, for example, as the United States named China and Russia as threats. Physical and biological changes in the Arctic Ocean are not even the primary factor determining how the Arctic is considered in global affairs. But environmental changes affect both reality and perception of an increasingly accessible and relevant Arctic, giving the Arctic increased prominence on the global stage and drawing greater interest, scrutiny, and concern.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™. An earlier version of this article appeared here.

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