Ms Fizza Batool is a student of International Relations from Kinnaird College for Women. She is particularly interested in geo-economics, geopolitics, area studies, diplomacy, conflict and peace, strategic and defense studies, political economy, and global politics of the environment.
Significance of the Arctic Region
The Arctic region encompasses the belt stretching along the North Pole covering eight countries: Canada, Greenland, Russia, Iceland, the United States, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. The region is signified by the Arctic Ocean basin while the Beaufort Sea is a significant element of the region’s diverse ecosystem. With the onset of the twenty-first century, the Arctic region has significantly increased in strategic, geopolitical, and geo-economic domains and has also made headlines because of ice loss, warmer waters, rising sea levels, and permafrost melting.
On strategic grounds, the Arctic region embraces a prestigious locale and is rich in resources like natural gas and crude oil, that are currently readily available for the global powers to usurp. It has been implied that the region fulfills the standards of geopolitics as:
- It is rich in resources including fishery sources, iron ores, nickel, copper, zinc, lead, and coal.
- It covers 13% of the Earth’s undiscovered conventional oil and 30% of the natural gas.
- It is crucial for global security since the U.S., China, and Russia are contemporary players in the region.
- The uniqueness of the region lies among the geopolitical sides. However, the global attention towards global warming resulting in the melting of glaciers adds to the strategic significance of the region.
- The Arctic is a medium for North-West passage supplying important sea lanes for shipping which minimize the long routes for trade.
The expanding accessibility, the allure of the area’s natural resources, and shipping routes are one of the primary causes of the “new Cold War” in the Arctic. There are a lot of mineral reserves, fish stocks, and freshwater in the Arctic, respectively. The interest of Arctic and non-Arctic governments in using these resources increases along with the rise in global demand for them. Additionally, the Arctic has new marine navigational opportunities because of the melting of the sea ice, which may dramatically shorten shipping times and costs between Asia, Europe, and North America.
A Theatre of Great Power Competition
Primarily, agreements are a natural part of the great power strategic approach if the Arctic holds a zone of geopolitical struggle. The Arctic Ocean and its natural riches are becoming more accessible due to increasing temperatures worldwide, and the United States, Russia, and China all strive for their mobility of passage and sovereign claims and aims to be preserved.
Yet, the increasing influence of China and its novel claims over the Arctic, the Russian militarism in the Arctic sea lanes, the growing integration between China and Russia, the geopolitical disputes between Russia and the US, and international competition between the US and China are all entwining the Arctic in an emerging era of global power struggle. Due to climate change and human activity, the Arctic area is undergoing rapid and unprecedented changes. The countries that border the Arctic as well as those with interests in the region are currently confronting new opportunities and challenges because of these developments.
Researchers have issued warnings that the Arctic region is becoming a new theater for geopolitical rivalry and possibly conflict, particularly between Russia, the United States, and China. According to the key characters, implications, and actors involved in the Arctic area, there would be a “new Cold War” taking place. The security situation in the region has also become more complicated and unclear because of China’s rising interest in and presence in the Arctic. China has branded itself as a “near-Arctic state” and made significant investments in the area’s scientific research, economic growth, and diplomatic involvement. Through Arctic maritime routes, China’s “Polar Silk Road” program looks to link Asia and Europe, posing a threat to the supremacy of the United States and its allies in the area.
An Arctic Resource War
Researchers who foresaw the start of resource wars in the Arctic have been drawn in by the thirst for riches. Most of the resources in the Arctic are in contested areas like the Beaufort Sea, where the boundary between Canada and the US has been a cause of intense debate for some time. When the US government leased off oil and gas licenses in the contested territory in 2003, Ottawa lodged an official objection, heightening the possibility of protracted legal disputes and scaring off foreign energy businesses. It is understood that the possibility of a military conflict between the two members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is unimaginable given the close relations that exist between Canada and the United States.
The shifting dynamics of the balance of power and security in the area are another factor contributing to the “new Cold War” in the Arctic. Russia, which has the longest Arctic coastline and the greatest proportion of the region’s resources, is the most significant player in this respect. In the Arctic, Russia has been pursuing an assertive and ambitious strategy that includes building up its military capabilities, increasing patrols and exercises, modernizing its icebreakers and nuclear forces, and asserting its claims over sizable portions of the continental shelf.
Other Arctic governments, particularly NATO allies, are concerned about Russia’s intentions and capabilities in the area because of its actions. Russia’s participation in the wars in Syria and Ukraine has further heightened tensions and antagonism between Moscow and Washington, which might spread into the Arctic.
US Strategy in the Arctic
The United States, under the Biden administration, developed a new Arctic strategy centered on deterrence and averting competitors from posing an imminent threat to the US and its coalition partners, restricting the use of the global commons, and controlling important regions like the Indo-Pacific to strengthen the position of the US for geopolitical concurrence in the vicinity. Climate change has prompted the Arctic region to evolve rapidly, posing novel challenges and alternatives for the United States and other players.
A peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative Arctic is the goal of the United States’ national policy for the area. This plan is built on four pillars. These four pillars are security, combating climate change, sustainable economic growth, and global collaboration. The goal of the plan is to strike a balance between the need to defend the homeland and sovereignty of the United States, to lessen the effects of climate change, to support sustainable development and livelihoods, and to respect international law and standards in the Arctic.
The Chinese Polar Silk Road
The Polar Silk Road (PSR) is a strategic plan by China that looks to cross the Arctic Ocean to link China with Europe and other continents. China sees the Arctic as a developing region of political, economic, and security relevance and considers the PSR to be essential to its growth and international influence. The PSR covers the creation of regional economic alliances, infrastructure building, the extraction of raw materials (including fossil fuels), and the emergence of new marine trade lanes.
In 2010, China began to show passion for the Arctic region and develop an Arctic strategy. China’s Arctic policy is based on the concept of the Polar Silk Road. Business motivations and concerns associated with securing and extending its energy distribution networks are other significant factors for China’s intense interest in the Arctic region. In the upcoming years, Chinese energy companies will compete for access to onshore oil and gas discoveries in the Arctic.
One of the primary justifications in support of the PSR is that it can shorten travel times and distances between China and Europe in comparison to the established routes through the Strait of Malacca or the Suez Canal. As a result, trade costs and risks may be reduced, and China’s competitiveness and energy security can be improved. Additionally, the PSR can aid China in gaining access to the region’s enormous natural resources, including fisheries, minerals, oil, and gas.
Utilizing Arctic Sea routes, and exploring and developing the region’s resources might have a considerable influence on China’s energy policy. China has made investments in gas projects on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia and has aimed to work with other Arctic nations including Iceland and Norway. The PSR’s ability to highlight China’s technological and scientific prowess as well as its dedication to international cooperation and environmental conservation is another point in its favor. China has vowed to respect the sovereignty and interests of the Arctic states, as well as the international rules and norms regulating the region, and has found itself as a “near-Arctic state” in the area.
The PSR faces many challenges and objections. For instance, sea ice is melting because of global warming, which may open new routes but also raises the danger of icebergs, storms, fog, and extremely low temperatures. Additionally, the environmental effects of human activity in the Arctic may be permanent and harmful to the area’s delicate ecosystem and biodiversity. The geopolitical and security ramifications of China’s expanding influence and presence in the Arctic supply another difficulty. China’s goals and aspirations in the area have alarmed certain nations, notably the United States, who see them as a challenge to their interests and supremacy. China is charged with plundering the Arctic’s prospects and resources while making little effort to improve its governance or stability. They also try to restrict China’s access to and activity in the Arctic and cast doubt on its validity and status as a non-Arctic state.
China’s PSR is therefore a complicated and contentious endeavor that reflects both its economic expansion and its aspirations for a global presence. For China and other Arctic parties, it has beneficial aspects and disadvantages. To balance the advantages and risks and keep the peaceful and sustainable development of the region, careful planning, coordination, collaboration, and communication are needed.
Sino-Russian collaboration in the Arctic is a strategic alliance that is beneficial to both nations and helps the Global Arctic flourish peacefully. Exploiting natural resources, advancing scientific research, and fostering commerce and connectivity through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are all things that China and Russia have in common. China and Russia have been able to make concessions and work together on several initiatives, including the Yamal LNG project, the Ice Silk Road plan, and the joint exploration of oil and gas reserves, despite certain legal and political disagreements.
Cooperation between China and Russia in the Arctic region also acts as a check on the growing power and influence of Western nations, particularly the United States, which sees the region as a possible battleground for geostrategic rivalry. China has been actively collaborating with Russia for the implementation of its policy. Russia, being the nearest to the Arctic, provides China with a crucial sea route, and in turn, China provides Russia access to warm waterways with the prime ambition to conduct trade. Thus, Sino-Russian collaboration in the Arctic is not an imminent risk but rather a logical and practical reaction to the Arctic’s shifting geopolitical and environmental circumstances.
The Neo-Realist Narrative
The phenomenon of the Arctic presents a chance for realism theory analysis. Realism is a wide notion that encompasses everything from classical realism as described by Hans J. Morgenthau (1948) to neorealism as developed by Kenneth N. Waltz (1979). It is believed that the global order is wholly and permanently chaotic. Neo-realists often assert that these influences do not change the vital role that conflict performs in global politics, even though conventions, laws and structures, opinions, and other variables are accepted to influence the conduct of states. Since climate change has presented the Arctic nations and other players with new opportunities and problems, the region has become a focal point of great power conflict.
A neo-realist narrative can, hence, help in explaining the dynamics of this rivalry. Neo-realism holds that in an international system that lacks a central authority to enforce laws or norms, nations want to maximize their relative strength and security. State interests in accessing and using the region’s natural resources, supporting their maritime borders, and extending their military presence and influence will be pursued in the Arctic as a result.
In the case of the US-China power confrontation in the Arctic, neorealism implies the fact that conflict is an undeniable phenomenon, whereby the developed strategies can supply a dimension to the persistence of conflict which is merely an economic one. Resource wars are an example of the implication of conflict in the region. Neorealism, however, also acknowledges that states may work together under specific circumstances.
This implies that to resolve their issues and advance regional stability, governments in the Arctic will also take part in multilateral organizations like the Arctic Council and abide by international law like the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea). To understand the intricate and dynamic nature of great power conflict in the Arctic, a neo-realist story can be a helpful tool.
Thucydides Trap: An Idea
American political scientist Graham T. Allison coined the phrase “Thucydides trap” to characterize the propensity for conflict when a growing power poses a danger to replace an established great power as a regional or global hegemon. The phrase is based on a statement made by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who said that Sparta’s dread of Athens’ development made the Peloponnesian War between the two cities unavoidable.
Allison contends that this pattern has appeared several times throughout history, with war breaking out in 12 of the 16 instances of great power conflict. A possible flashpoint for such a confrontation is the Arctic region because of its abundance of natural resources, strategic locations, and environmental significance. Exploration, exploitation, and navigation in the area now face new potential and problems due to the melting of the polar ice caps brought on by climate change. The eight Arctic Council nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – are the key players in the region. Moreover, other nations have also expressed interest in the region, including China, India, Japan, and the European Union.
According to The Thucydides trap, China’s desire to increase its presence and influence in the Arctic might lead to tension and war between the United States and China. China has referred to itself as a “near-Arctic state” and has undertaken several diplomatic, scientific, and commercial projects there. China has also made significant investments in the region to link Asia with Europe and Africa via land and water routes over the Arctic. Some Arctic nations, particularly the United States, which sees China as a strategic rival and a possible danger to its interests and allies, have serious concerns about China’s intentions.
The Thucydides trap suggests that a conflict between China and the United States over the Arctic is not inescapable, but rather might result from their rivalry instead. Both parties must practice restraint, communication, collaboration, and respect for international law and standards to avert such a situation. All regional parties may benefit greatly from the calm and fruitful engagement promoted by the Arctic Council. The Thucydides trap also cautions that human initiative and creativity may sculpt many futures and that history is not destiny. To avoid being constrained by the past, it is crucial to learn from it.
The “new Cold War” in the Arctic region has wide-ranging effects that are important for both local and global stability. On the one hand, the region’s growing competitiveness and collaboration have certain advantages. For instance, competition may encourage innovation and progress in fields like indigenous rights, environmental preservation, and renewable energy. Cooperation might encourage communication between Arctic governments on topics including fisheries management, scientific research, and security. However, there are many challenges to the increasing rivalry in the area.
A nuclear exchange or conventional war between large countries, for instance, might result in conflict that has disastrous effects on ecosystems, human life, and the environment. Conflict may also weaken the institutions and laws now in place to manage the Arctic, including the Ilulissat Declaration, the UNCLOS, and the Arctic Council. Conflict could also take resources and focus away from tackling pressing issues like climate change adaptation and mitigation.
Given the scenario of a power struggle and the urgency of climate change, the rise of China is inevitable. The implementation of climate preservation policies is used as a tool to invest in the Arctic region and collaborate for interdependence on geopolitical constraints. The Polar Silk Road, if completed, would directly pose an economic threat to the US, laying the foundation for the Thucydides trap.
The US needs to devise an active maritime strategy to keep its strong foothold over the globe. China, on the other hand, in collaboration with Russia would enhance energy security and deter the US in the geo-economic domain. The emerging war could be named the “new Cold War” with economic tussle as the main aim.
The strategic significance of the Arctic region, its abundance in resources, and the menace of global warming have dragged the attention of international players whereby, they tactically hold the notion of environmental preservation in the Arctic region. However, in reality, international actors are exploiting the region with the initiation of projects to enhance their economic status.
The main concern over the Arctic theatre is the US-China power competition where China is the rising power, and the US is the ruling power. If, in the coming times, China overpowers the US, the presented idea of the Thucydides trap would be considered successful. In conclusion, the argument lies in the fact that there would be a “new Cold War” in the Arctic due to the region’s growing economic prospects and security threats. There are both positive and negative effects of this phenomenon on regional and global stability. To foster a peaceful and sustainable development of this crucial region, the international community must cooperate to prevent and manage possible disputes in the Arctic.
If you want to submit your articles, research papers, and book reviews, please check the Submissions page.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.