The Arctic: new arena for great power rivalry

May 17, 2019 18:32
The melting of sea ice across the Arctic has opened up new shipping routes and access to natural resources, thereby greatly boosting the region's military, shipping and mining value. Photo: Reuters

Given its harsh and desolate environment, the Arctic has long been regarded as a place with no economic and military value.

However, as sea ice across the region continues to melt as a result of accelerating global climate change, the Arctic is turning into a new arena for great power rivalry.

The melting of the ice has opened up new shipping routes and access to natural resources that were previously stuck in deep permafrost, thereby greatly boosting the region's military, shipping and mining value.

In view of these new opportunities, the great powers are now fiercely competing with one another for predominance in the region, and seeing the area as the “new Middle East”, the “new lifeline” of the global economy, as well as the “new military commanding heights” of the world.

At present, there are eight Arctic coastal states, and based on the principle of the extended continental shelf, Russia currently has the biggest geographical advantage in the Arctic, with Canada coming in second and the United States third.

Yet given Russia’s diminishing economic strength, Moscow can no longer withstand on its own the growing influence of the US and its allies in the region.

That explains why Russia has simply “hit it off” with China over the Arctic issue.

Despite the fact that China isn’t by theory an Arctic country, it is already the second largest economy in the world which is seeking a bigger say in global affairs, and is also aggressively eyeing the new opportunities now up for grabs in the Arctic.

With their own strategic agendas to serve, Moscow and Beijing have therefore eagerly aligned themselves with each other over their Arctic claims in the face of western challenges.

For example, Chinese and Russian leaders have mentioned on numerous occasions the importance of bilateral cooperation in exploring new shipping routes in the Arctic, and inestablishing the “Polar Silk Road”.

And since the new Arctic shipping routes can substantially shorten the distance between the Pacific and the Atlantic, both Beijing and Moscow have agreed that the new sea passage off the northern coast of Russia should become an integral part of China’s “New Silk Road” program.

Since 2016, the two countries have already carried out numerous joint inspection visits across the Arctic. Meanwhile, between 2012 and 2017, China also invested nearly US$90 billion in exploring the region.

Given Russia’s military strength and its sovereignty over 60 percent of the Arctic territories, as well as China’s enormous amount of capital and strong infrastructure-building capacity, a Sino-Russian alliance can definitely deny the US any say in Arctic affairs.

That is perhaps the reason why US State Secretary Mike Pompeo took aim at both Moscow and Beijing in a high-handed manner when speaking at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Finland on May 6, accusing Russia of behaving aggressively in the Arctic and warning that China's actions in the region had to be watched.

In particular, Pompeo criticized Beijing for trying to turn the Arctic into another South China Sea.

Apart from making accusations publicly, Washington also has another trump card up its sleeve: denying Beijing any legitimate status in the region on the grounds that China isn’t an Arctic country at all, as well as playing the same old tune of blaming Chinese investors for causing extensive ecological destruction in the Arctic.

Of course, China would never admit to the US accusations and would counter that it is also entitled to the right of participating in Arctic affairs by stressing the global significance and international implications of the Arctic issue.

As we all know, might is always right when it comes to competing for international territories among the great powers.

That said, once a Sino-Russian alliance is sealed, the US is also likely to team up with other Arctic countries such as Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway in order to achieve dominance in the region.

If that happens, the Arctic is likely to become the arena for a new Cold War.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor