Cold War in the Arctic: the latest hotspot in global geopolitics thanks to climate change

A new battle – economic and political for the moment – is emerging on one of the most hostile geographical stages on the planet, the Arctic. The main players are the three superpowers, the United States, Russia and China, but the increasing rivalry for access to and control over the vast resources in the region and its use as a prime trading route holds major implications for a large part of the world, especially the European Union, with member states in the Arctic region and a clear interest in the area’s development. West African and certain Latin American countries will also be impacted by the new shipping route.

In Brussels, concern over the Arctic has already placed its strategic significance on a level with other regions, such as the Middle East. In addition to the economic factors, the focus of this concern, as underlined by the Finnish presidency of the Council of the EU during the second half of 2019, is the potential implications of global climate change for European security strategies. Temperature rises are shrinking the polar ice cap and opening up the navigable waters within the Arctic Polar Circle and off the coasts of Canada, the United States, Russia and north-west Europe, including Greenland.

Aside from presenting new economic challenges, it also begs the question of whether northern European countries should continue entrusting their security to their alliance with the United States within NATO, as neither Washington nor the Atlantic Alliance are able to compete with Russia in the Arctic, which is not only its backyard but also the source of a large share of the country’s natural wealth. Moreover, Sweden and Finland, two of the key European countries in the region, are not even members of NATO.

In August 2019, the US media widely covered President Donald Trump’s apparently outlandish offer to buy Greenland from Denmark. The proposition was met with bewilderment in Copenhagen and hilarity in other European capitals.

But it was not a mere show of bravado on Trump’s part. It was an outlandish but also a very direct expression of Washington’s concern over the moves being made by its Chinese and Russian rivals in the Arctic region, and a clear signal of the United States’ interest in the area.

In terms of its style, the message sent out by the US president was in keeping with Trump’s unrelenting spirit of enterprise, but in terms of substance it was a trumpet call announcing the United States’ strategy with regard to the Arctic. At the beginning of March 2019, two US generals, Curtis Scaparrotti and Stephen Lyons, appeared before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. Their testimonies included a troubling message, climate change is already affecting the defence strategy with regard to the Arctic Ocean, calling into question the repeated attempts of the Trump administration itself to dismiss this progressive temperature rise as a national security risk for the United States. The generals simply corroborated what scientists have been saying for decades. According to NASA’s calculations, Arctic sea ice is shrinking by around 54,000 square kilometres every year. The 2014 National Climate Assessment had already warned that the Arctic Ocean would no longer have sea ice in summer by 2050. Some environmental institutions have brought that date forward to 2040.

Russia-China alliance and the Polar Silk Road

The responses brought by the two military officials to the questions of Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed in two directions. The melting of Arctic ice and the opening of new shipping routes in the region has prompted Russia to reorganise its defence strategy in the area, installing new radar systems and rehabilitating airport facilities and building new ones on the country’s northern coast. And the United States’ main economic rival, China, is taking steps to become the chief commercial beneficiary of new northern shipping lanes.

Beijing and Moscow are banking on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to drive the region’s development and to facilitate the transport of goods between their two countries and towards western Europe.

In September 2018, Danish vessel Venta Maersk completed the voyage from Vladivostok to San Petersburg through the NSR. The journey was ten days shorter than it would have been if it had gone via the Suez Canal. China wants to shorten the journey from around 48 days to a maximum of 20, and to cut the cost of shipping goods from Chinese to European markets. Beijing has presented a White Paper asserting its status as a “Near-Arctic State”, as the authorities like to call it. This “roadmap” emerged in response to a cooperation proposal put forward by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

The progressive shrinking of the polar ice cap will make it easier to meet these aspirations, and the opening of regular routes will reduce some of the risks of navigating Arctic waters, such as the difficulties surrounding rescue operations in case of accident, the adverse weather and the lack of adequate nautical charts. Russia has the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world and these vessels are helping to make the NSR viable. The Russian investments to improve this fleet are backed by Chinese capital, which is financing the building of new ships. China is not a member of the Arctic Council but it has made it very clear that its interests in the region are very similar to those of the eight member states. Beijing’s goal is to take the annual amount of cargo shipped via the NSR from the current 18 million tonnes to 80 million tonnes by 2030.

Added to the commercial advantages of suitably equipped ships sailing through the Arctic are the opportunities in terms of natural wealth prospection and extraction, especially oil, gas and the ‘rare earths’ used in the telecommunications industry. There are an estimated 90 billion barrels of oil and several trillion cubic metres of natural gas (figures that vary, depending on the source) in the Arctic region. Over half of these crude oil deposits and almost all of the gas are on Russian territory. And the key to transporting these fuels are icebreakers, for now, and until climate change accelerates the increase in open waters, for part of the year at least.

Russian investments, backed by China, into the development of commercial shipping and natural resource extraction in the Arctic currently amount to over US$160 billion (around €145 billion), a figure no other country will be able to match, or come anywhere close to, in the next ten years.

The United States sees the rapid strides being made by Russia and China in the Arctic as a serious threat to its interests, but Washington’s capacity to react is very limited at the moment. The explanations given by the two US generals served as an endorsement for the US government’s decision, at the beginning of the year, to increase spending on Arctic infrastructure, such as the new icebreakers needed to fill one of the gaps in the United States’ activity in the region, for which it has earmarked US$675 million (€610 million). The US has just one polar-class icebreaker. Russia has over 50. Russia’s icebreaker ships, moreover, have access to a series of safe harbours where they can stop for refuelling, servicing and repairs, a logistics system that the United States lacks.

The Arctic is “nobody’s lake”, Admiral James Foggo, commander of US Naval Forces Europe, recently insisted. The million dollar question is what can the United States do to counter Russia’s presence and supremacy in the Arctic without devoting the billions of dollars tied up in the regional security areas currently prioritised by Washington, such as the Pacific Basin? And despite the fact that the first section of the “Polar Silk Road” with which Russia and China want to gain unhindered access to northern waters is in the North Pacific.

Back in 2016, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy drew up a report for Congress on the strategy Washington should follow in the Arctic. The report, updated in 2019, identifies the “Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom –Norwegian (GIUK-N) gap” as a “strategic corridor for naval operations between the Arctic and the North Atlantic”. It forewarns of China’s collaboration with Russia, not only on the commercial exploitation of the NSR but also in the area of defence, with nuclear submarines being sent to these waters. The document advocates “limiting the ability of China and Russia to leverage the region” (already turned into a corridor for competition) and stopping the Moscow-Beijing axis from “advancing their strategic objectives through malign or coercive behavior”, in a region that is part of the United States’ homeland.

In May 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent out a very clear message at the Arctic Council held in Finland: “This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future,” adding that the region “has become an arena of global power and competition”. The new hot spot of tension and the never-more-aptly-termed Cold War has been laid out on the table.

This article has been translated from Spanish.