The Arctic Ocean region is attracting attention not only from the Arctic States but also from others due to its strategic and economic salience. Nations have formulated their own policies for this region. The Arctic region consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska (United States), Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden (eight nations). There are four million people, of whom approximately one tenth are considered indigenous. Russia has the largest area as its EEZ. However, with the melting of icebergs, a large area could become international waters.
The Arctic region is significant because of three factors. First, this region is getting warmer three times faster than the rest of the world. This impacts climate change and coastal regions as well as islands. Second, this region can provide a shorter shipping route from the Far East to Europe. Third, it contains a huge amount of mineral and hydrocarbon resources. It is estimated that the region has 22% of the world’s oil and natural gas and 25% of global rare earth minerals.
In view of the increasing value of this region, Russia, US, Canada, and China have developed or revised their policies. India also has come up with its arctic policy. A look at the policies of the important Arctic nations and China deserves attention to understand the early signs of emerging rivalry.
Russian policy needs to be seen in its Arctic Strategy of 2020 and the Arctic Posture of 2035. Russian Arctic Strategy 2020 has two dimensions. First, the utilization of the Arctic region as a strategic resource base to fulfil the country’s socioeconomic needs. Second, using the Northern Sea Route as a national transport route for Russia in the Arctic both for the development of its Far East region and as a trade route to Europe and beyond. Russia’s Arctic region houses about 1.5% of its population but contributes 10% to its GDP and 20% to its exports. Russia has the largest area in the Arctic. Russia is also concerned with the warming of the sea, which will impact its national security particularly when its relations with the West are deteriorating. The increased Russian activities are reflected in the revival of the Northern Fleet, development of new oil and gas terminals including Yamal and Shtokman, and expansions in Russian exclusive economic zones by taking approval from the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Therefore, the Arctic region has a crucial place in Russian strategic policy.
The policy posture of 2035, reflects the Russian urge to access the naval chokepoints in Greenland, Iceland, and the UK to demonstrate the significance of Russia’s sea power. Moscow is aiming to utilise the opportunity to develop energy reserves, including 85.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 17.3 billion metric tons of crude and condensate oil. Moreover, it is also trying to intensify its LNG production to 91 million tons by 2035. It is planning to increase the role of the Arctic in crude and condensate oil production to 20 percent in 2024, 23 percent in 2030, and eventually 26 percent in 2035.
A factor that has the potential to intensify the rivalry between Russia and the US and its allies in this region, is the closer ties that Russia has with China in this region as well. Russia has accepted China as the Near arctic state and its concept of the Polar Silk Road. Russia has accepted this as there are seven Arctic nations including the US that are against Russia.
The US updated its Arctic Strategy of 2013 in October 2022, realising that Russia-Ukraine conflict has added tough strategic contestation in the region. The US Arctic strategy has four pillars. Pillar 1 aims to deter threats to US homeland security and its allies by enhancing its capabilities in the region. This has led to an increased US military presence in the northern base of Thule, Greenland, which is 750 miles north of the Arctic, and hosts radar systems capable of scanning nuclear missiles launched against the US. Pillar 2 aims at building resilience to the impacts of climate change and providing environmental protection to the Alaskan people. Pillar 3 covers activities pertaining to sustainable economic development and improving livelihoods for the Alaskan people. Pillar 4 deals with international cooperation. It observes that there would be a challenge from Russia but intends to work to sustain Arctic institutions including the Arctic Council. Overall, the US has strategic interests in containing the Russian and Chinese presence in the region.
Canada launched Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework in September 2019, which defines its long-term vision. While it has eight goals for the protection of its people in the region, it sets out a long-term, strategic vision that will guide the Government of Canada’s activities and investments in the Arctic to 2030 and beyond. Significantly, Canada’s defence policy stresses enhancing their ability to operate in that region.
Since the last decade, China has taken great interest in the region. China has announced a ‘Polar Silk Route’ initiative and working to put into action. Beijing has invested in polar shipping -from ports to trade routes across the Arctic. It has built polar vessels called White Dragons, which include snow cutters. It has also supported research on the Arctic and proactively encouraged Chinese institutes to work with European ones for the same. It invested $ 90 billion between 2012 and 2017. It is the only country apart from Russia to be building nuclear-powered icebreakers. In the White Paper of 2018, China states that it is a “Near Arctic State” with a view to have a claim over the region. It is being supported by Russia. While in the current situation, Moscow has accepted Chinese support, in the long run this could go against the Russian interests.
India has formulated its strategy in 2022 after several rounds of talks with stakeholders. India’s Arctic policy titled ‘India and the Arctic: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development’ lays down six pillars:
- strengthening India’s scientific research and cooperation,
- climate and environmental protection,
- economic and human development,
- transportation and connectivity,
- governance and international cooperation, and
- national capacity building in the Arctic region.
India has been involved in this region since 1920 when it signed the Svalbard Treaty. In 2007, it established its Arctic research program (HIMADRI) with a focus on climate change in the region. Since 2014, India has a scientific underwater observatory in the region which is referred as IndARC. In 2016, India established the Gruvebadet laboratory in Svalbard. India which has a long coastal area is concerned with the rise of sea level. Besides, it realises the value of Northern Sea route.
The region is not without disputes. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic Sea as national waters (territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles) or internal waters. There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute international seaways and the rights to passage along them.
The US plans to deter others in the region and Russia would like to protect its current influential status. This can lead to a strategic rivalry. Russia faces seven nations though it has the support of China. The US and its allies will like to discourage Russian claim on the Northern Sea Route and militarisation of the region as also the Chinese increased presence. The International Community needs to take urgent steps to ensure that the region does not become another contested region like the South China Sea. It should be governed by international laws and rules.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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