The melting ice-cap is altering the conditions of the Arctic. While this great shift offers opportunities like telescoping distances, new challenges could also emerge. This time around there would be an additional player: China.

If all goes well, this unexplored region could offer mutual gains and collective opportunities for the world.

Climate change, global warming and new trends of power politics have brought the Arctic into unique geopolitical limelight. The melting ice-cap is altering conditions for the development of the Arctic while telescoping distances.

This great shift offers opportunities and challenges. The big sea-faring powers and others can either integrate their interests or broaden the scope of existing competition.

The abundant energy and mineral resources and reduced maritime routes between Europe and Asia are driving interest in the Arctic region. If competition becomes the leading trend, it’s likely to create demands for sovereignty, governance, and the right of passage through the Arctic.

By 2030, the trans-polar passage may become easier during summers due to receding ice-cap. The commercial maritime trade and energy routes, the wealth of natural resources that inter alia include which is an estimated 30 per cent of world’s undiscovered natural gas plus around 13 per cent of oil reserves, along with the prospects of hi-tech scientific research are some of the key aspects that are gradually setting up the Arctic region to become the modern-age destination for development, as well as an arena for neo-balance in inter-state relations.

About 80 per cent of this natural wealth and territory is claimed by Russia. The melting shores of Arctic are giving way to warm and tenuous lines, no longer keeping it the so-called Zone of Peace that the former Russian President Gorbachev envisioned in 1987.

During the Arctic Council’s meeting in 2019, the United States surprised Canada, one of its closest allies by including Canada alongside Russia and China as a security threat. The inclusion of the Arctic region in Chinese Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) Polar Silk Road plan could be one of the reasons that are stirring such reactions.

Stability in the transforming global environment hinges heavily on intentions and behaviour of the United States and China, the Arctic is not an exception.

The emerging dynamics of U.S.-China relations in the Arctic and the evolving regional balance of power can either offer new trends of intercontinental linkages and infrastructure development, ensuring a win-win for all actors, or become a ruse de guerre that may lead to military confrontation.

At the same time, opportunities have emerged for unlocking new passages of global economics and options for increased activity in the region.

The Polar navigation along the Russian coast, the Northern Sea Route (NSR), potentially allows a significant time saving of two weeks, as compared to the conventional forty days sea route between China and Europe. Experts and policymakers thus keep analysing the transformation of the Arctic through the prisms of economic, territorial, and geopolitical developments.

Author: Atia Ali Kazmi, Senior Research & Policy Analyst at NUST Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.