Most scholars writing in the post-Cold War era rejoiced over geopolitical stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic, defined by what they called “Arctic exceptionalism”,
which can be characterized by the absence of the great power competition in the region, and a supposed position outside of the reach of the traditional realist perspective.
However, the rise of China and its unprecedented claims in the Arctic, as well as its self-declared status of being the near-Arctic state; Russian militarization of the Arctic waters; increasing convergence between Russia and China; geopolitical tensions between Russia and the United States; and the global rivalry between the United States and China are all entangling the Arctic in a renewed great power competition.
In his maiden speech at the biennial ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council held in Rovaniemi, Finland, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo called the Arctic “an arena of global power and competition”.
In 2018, China released its first white paper on the Arctic strategy, self-declared itself as the “near-Arctic state” and unveiled the ambitious “Polar Silk Road” component of its grandiose Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).
Russia is strengthening its military and commercial presence in the Arctic by developing new military and naval bases, refurbishing the old ones, and expanding its already populated fleet of Nuclear-powered icebreakers and submarines.
The race to conquer resources in the world’s “final frontier” has already begun.
From the neorealist perspective, the conventional security of the Arctic is a function of how the great powers will interact with each other and how great power rivalries will unfold. This article defines the traditional security of the Arctic as a combination of three intersecting realities: First, shifting balance of power towards China at both global and regional (Arctic) level.
Second, increasing Cold War rivalries between the United States and Russia. Third, growing strategic convergence between Russia and China. Using a neorealist framework, this article assumes that the security and prosperity of other Arctic nations are intertwined with global security developments, for the simple reason best summed up in the ancient Greek dictum, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
It is wishful to think that cooperation can be woven around issues like environmental degradation, climate change, and sustainable development when the great powers are setting up camp in the region. Great power rivalries are governed not by cooperation, but by the dynamics of the security dilemma.
In the realm of global anarchy, which is defined by the absence of international government, no one can trust anyone. Relative military and economic gains matter, not the absolute ones. Increasingly, realists have started to declare the demise of Arctic exceptionalism. As Mathieu Boulègue writes, the time has now come to puncture the myth of “Arctic exceptionalism”.
Shifting Balance of Power: China’s Rise & America’s Decline
The global balance of power is shifting towards China. The American share of global trade and GDP is declining. America is receding from its global commitments and is turning inwards, and China is increasingly challenging the US hegemony. The South China Sea is on the roll to become the Chinese Sea.
China is getting a stronghold of the major International Organizations. Beijing is fast bridging the military gap with Washington and the world order is moving towards a bipolar or better labelled, nonpolar world. With the shift of the strategic balance of power, China is getting both emboldened and assertive at the same time.
China is a self-declared near-Arctic state having mildly revisionist intentions. As the economic, military, and diplomatic standing of China has improved drastically over the past two decades, the more confident and prosperous China is seeking a louder international voice, not just in the Indo-Pacific but also in other parts of the world.
Although it is highly unlikely that China will get into a military confrontation with the United States, its salami-slicing techniques and debt-trap strategy are a cause of concern for the Arctic stability in large and the United States interests in particular.
Greenland and Iceland are the centers of a diplomatic tussle between the United States and China. The American concerns about the Chinese investments in the mineral resources of Greenland, geothermal energy in Iceland, and a joint project with Finland to develop a ‘data silk road’, are evident in its policy papers and diplomatic behaviour.
Greenland is a case in point of the conflicting US and Chinese interests in the region. Chinese attempt to buy a defunct naval base and eagerness to build a new airport in Nuuk, the capital city of Greenland, were taken by such gravity in Washington that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis had to jump in to pressurize Danish government to halt these initiatives and allegedly the United States committed itself to these projects.
Further, the US administration lives in constant fear that Chinese investments could embolden the economy of Greenland and could help Greenland’s pursuit of independence from Denmark. This will have a major setback to the US security commitments in the region and especially to its military base in Thule.
The Great Power rivalry, caused by the shift in the balance of power, is intensified by the dynamics of a security dilemma wherein attempts by one state to enhance its security is perceived with strategic mistrust by the other state, stimulating a negative spiral of deteriorating relations leading to security tensions, arms race and military conflict or war.
As the great power rivalry between China and the United States ripens, there are very high possibilities that the tensions, conflicts, and competition arising in one part of the world will spill into other regions. The Arctic remains vulnerable to these “strategic spillovers”.
New Cold War in the Arctic
e Arctic Ocean was highly militarised during the Cold War. The Soviet Union, as well as the United States stationed nuclear deterrence on the Northern reaches of the Arctic. The strategic importance of the Arctic Ocean is qualified by the geographical proximity between the United States and the USSR (now Russia) ballistic missiles could easily strike the enemy by flying over the Arctic.
Further, the desolated and unreachable spreads of the Arctic North assured second-strike nuclear capabilities. Some scholars argue that Arctic exceptionalism is coming to an end and the security environment of the Arctic is entering into a new Cold War. Others believe that security and nuclear commitments in the region were never withdrawn and thus the old one never ended.
If we don’t take into account the dwindling figures of its economy, Russia is a power that has always punched above its weight. The United States and China might be structural competitors for global hegemony, but when it comes to the Arctic region, Russia is the undisputable military and economic superpower.
Russians have militarized the Arctic at an expeditious pace. The current Russian military buildup in the Arctic is highly defensive, but its inherent offensive capabilities cannot be denied.
In 2014, Russia opened a new Unified Strategic Command, called “OSK Sever,” to strengthen the security of its vast Arctic borders and secure its Arctic interests. The Kola Peninsula remains the crux of Russian military establishment in the western Arctic, for securing its strategic interests and for power projection capabilities in the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.
Russia claims to have built 475 new military sites, including bases north of the Arctic Circle, as well as 16 new deep-water ports. It secures this presence through sophisticated new air defence systems and anti-ship missiles.
The renewed Russian military posture cannot be seen in isolation from the changing geopolitical environment and building structural tensions between Moscow and Washington. In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the United States, along with other major Western nations imposed economic and financial sanctions on Moscow.
The same year, Russia was expelled from one of the principal security-based Arctic forums, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.
These events, among many others, help explain the increased pace of military deployment along the Russian Arctic waters. The geopolitical tensions near the Black Sea had direct and indirect consequences for Arctic security, affirming the notion of strategic spillovers. Mathieu Boulègue best sums this up in his article on Russian military posture: “Despite its unique geography, the Arctic does not exist in isolation from the wider international context, or away from the pressures around the strained relations between Russia and the West.”
The probability of a significant military clash between the United States and Russia is heightened by the frequent encounters of NATO-operated and Russian vessels in the Barents and Norwegian Seas.
In 2018, the Russian military jammed the GPS telecommunication channels during a major NATO exercise, “Trident Juncture,” in Norway. Further, the Russian bases in the Kola Peninsula and NATO bases in Norway are separated by just a few kilometres. The possibility of a future clash is further intensified by the fact that out of the seven Arctic States aside from Russia, five are NATO allies (the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway) and the other two (Finland and Sweden) are NATO enhanced opportunities partners. Thus, the century-old tensions between Russia and the United States will continue to threaten Arctic stability.
Strategic Convergence between Russia & China
Russia-China cooperation can be traced back to the 1997 Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and Establishment of a New International Order. The declaration was inspired by the fear of American unipolarity that emerged after the dissolution of the USSR.
This was followed by a Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed in 2001. Since 2005, Russia and China have conducted several bilateral and multilateral military exercises. David Scott points out, “Military cooperation between Russia and China has clear ‘geopolitical signalling’, against the US-led international order.”
The ongoing geopolitical tussle between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other has furthered the fortunes of the two nations. Writing for a newspaper, Independent Military Review, Russian military specialist Alexander Shirokorad raised the possibility of joint Russia-China air and missile defence for the Arctic.
Though such independent opinion needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, the fact that such assertive opinions are already in the air is a cause of some serious concern.
The strategic convergence between Russia and China is governed by the perceived imperative to balance the United States. The urge for balancing is augmented by the Russian want for infrastructure and investment and China’s hunger for resources. The convergence is most evident in the energy sector.
China’s National Petroleum Corporation holds a 20 percent share, while China’s state-controlled silk road fund has a 9.9 percent share in the Yamal Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) extraction project. The cooperation was further intensified when Washington blacklisted COSCO Shipping in September 2019 (The COSCO Shipping tanker fleet is an important component in the export of LNG from the Yamal Peninsula).
The sanctions affected the Russian hydrocarbon exports-led economy and Chinese energy security. As the geopolitical tensions between China and the United States rise, Russia will prove to be a major swing state and the extent of its cooperation with China will dictate the geopolitics of the Arctic and that of the world.
How the dynamics of the US-China-Russia strategic triangle unfold will dictate the terms of peace and stability, or conflict and war in the Arctic region. It is always risky as well as difficult to predict the future, but it is safe to say that the current geopolitical reading of the global order and that of the Arctic region points towards a murky, unstable, and conflictual future.