As countries race to benefit from a new shipping route and other resources in the Arctic, the US, viewing the region through a national security lens, is pushing back against Russia and China.
If Donald Trump is right, and global warming is a “hoax”, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit earlier this month to Rovaniemi, capital of Finnish Lapland, for a meeting of the eight-member Arctic Council, must have had a surreal air.
This traditional home of reindeer, the indigenous Sami people and Santa Claus, is getting into the habit of celebrating “Black Christmas” as rain begins to replace snow during the winter months.
The government is thinking of moving the Santa Claus village further north to make sure the 300,000 visitors during winter have a white Christmas.
Discussions at the Arctic Council became heated as Pompeo blocked efforts to include references to climate change or the Paris Accord commitments to carbon dioxide emission cuts.
Pompeo and the US administration are focused not on the climate-change warnings from the Arctic, where scientists say temperatures are rising twice as fast as in most parts of the planet, but on the strategic and military challenges as the Arctic Ocean opens to sea traffic and China has begun to talk of the “Polar Silk Road” as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness,” Pompeo warned as he took aim at Russia and China.
“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into the new South China Sea, fraught with militarisation and competing for territorial claims?”
He said that in response to Russia’s “destabilising activities”, the US would be hosting military exercises, strengthening its military presence, rebuilding its icebreaker fleet, expanding coastguard funding and creating a new senior military post for Arctic affairs.
In a paranoid and increasingly McCarthyite US, it seems threats to national security lurk on all sides, whether it is Chinese students and Confucius Institutes, Huawei or cargo ships beginning to be able to ply the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s 24,000km Arctic coast from Murmansk, close to Norway, to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka peninsula close to Japan.
In a world of “dual-use” everything, there is no innocent or profit-seeking venture that cannot be seen as a national security threat.
However disdainfully Trump dismisses the climate change issue, the ruckus in Rovaniemi makes it clear that the transformation being wrought by global warming in the Arctic has the makings of a very hot new cold war.
Since Peter the Great, the great Arctic wastes have been a long-standing and lonely Russian preserve.
The 20 million square kilometres of ice and treeless land were of concern to no one except Russia, which has one-fifth of its land inside the Arctic. Four other countries lay claim to land in the Arctic Canada, the US, Norway, and Denmark – but few paid it much attention.
Russia built the world’s first icebreaker, the Yermak, in 1899, and in 1957 launched the Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker.
While today the US Navy owns just two icebreakers, with plans to build four new, Russia has a fleet of at least 40, nine of them nuclear-powered.
But the Arctic transformation has brought this once-ignored area into sharp commercial and strategic focus.
Nasa says Arctic ice has shrunk at 12.8 percent a decade since 1979, with last year’s ice cover down 42 percent from 1980. Much of Russia’s Arctic coastline is now ice-free through the summer months.
From four vessels able to ply the Northern Sea Route in 2010, more than 71 passed through in 2013, and now – with Russian icebreakers as escorts – the numbers are rising fast.
Cargoes along the Northern Sea Route that bottomed at 1.46 million tonnes in 1998 are now running towards tens of millions.
The 48-day sea journey from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal can be cut to 35 days, reducing fuel costs by an estimated 40 percent.
It must have seemed natural for Chinese President Xi Jinping to extend his Belt and Road Initiative to embrace the potential of a Polar Silk Road.
Resources locked under Arctic ice for millennia are now tantalisingly accessible.
The US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that the Arctic was home to 13 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the world’s natural gas.
Then there is the gold, uranium, diamonds, rare earth and fish.
No wonder so many is licking their lips at the potential commercial bonanza. Perhaps it is no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to capture much of this long-ignored potential as soon as possible.
Putin says 10 percent of all Russian economic investment is currently in the Arctic region. Not for nothing did Russia plant a titanium Russian flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole in 2007.
China has become a massive foreign investor in Russia’s Arctic wastes, most visibly in its stake in the Yamal liquid natural gas project, which supplies gas to Jiangsu province.
That is why it so treasures its observer seat at the Arctic Council table.
But for Trump’s US, this mouthwatering economic potential is beside the point. Through the US’ current “national security” lens, the nine scientific expeditions undertaken in the Arctic by China’s Xue Long (Snow Dragon) icebreaker since 1999 are as threatening as they might be genuinely scientific.
Russia’s insistence that it escorts all vessels along the Northern Sea Route arouses similar suspicions.
But before anyone begins to hyperventilate, there are many who insist that the commercial potential, or military risk, from the Arctic Ocean, will be a long time coming.
Sea passage may now be possible during a few summer months, but for most of the year, the region remains as forbidding as ever.
Risks and costs linked with the bleak conditions may severely constrain commercial exploitation for many decades.
As one marine risk consultant noted:
“Think about a high mountain pass that is closed for half the year, has no gas stations, convenience stores or repair facilities. Is this the route that you want to use for your daily commute?”
For a hardy few, maybe.