The New Geopolitics of the Warming Arctic

From geophysics to geopolitics

2018 and 2019 are scientific and geopolitical turning point for the warming Arctic region. Since 2013, Chinese cargo convoys have used the Russian Northern Sea Route increases (Atle Staalesen, “A Chinese-built Arctic tanker tests spring ice along remote Russian coast », The Independent Barents Observer, May 07,2019). In effect, the rapid warming of the region transforms this passage into a navigable space (Atle Staalesen, “The warmest ever winter on the Northern Sea Route”, The Independent Barents Observer, March 28, 2019).

Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice by NASA Climate Change

In the meantime, the Russian political, economic, and military authorities have launched a massive program of infrastructure, maritime and defence development of this 4500 km long area, linking the Bering Strait to the Russian-Norway frontier (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).

America is Back (in the Arctic)

Finally, on 6 May 2019, the U.S secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out after the presence and politics of Russia and China in the Arctic:

“We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.”

Mike Pompeo from Jennifer Anslen, “Pompeo: Melting sea ice “presents new trade opportunities”, CNN, May 7, 2019.

The U.S.- China confrontation is not “only” about the US trade deficit, but also about power politics in a warming and changing world.

In other terms, the warming of the Arctic transforms this region into the new frontier of a new driver of the confrontation between the US and China. It reveals that this confrontation is not “only” about the US trade deficit, but that it is also about power politics in a warming and changing world.

1. Three great powers in a warming Arctic

The economic development of the Russian Arctic was also an important topic during the second Belt and Road Forum, held in Beijing from 25 to 27 April 2019. There, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin exchanged about the necessary Chinese and Asian investments for the next phase of development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) (Atle Staalesen, “Putin steps up talk with Beijing over Arctic Shipping”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 30, 2019).

Towards the Sino-Russian “polar silk road”?

Moreover, Vladimir Putin took the project to the next level, when he said that the Northern Sea Route could become part of the Chinese Maritime Belt and Road initiative. This would imply major Chinese investments, in order to further develop the logistical and especially transhipment capabilities along the Siberian coast (Staalesen, ibid).

A few days later, on 10 April 2019, in Saint Petersburg, the Russian development of the warming Arctic was a central topic discussed during the “Arctic forum – A territory of dialogue”. The main event of the forum was a roundtable gathering the four Arctic heads of government of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland, hosted by President Vladimir Putin. The summit attracted more than 4000 people.

The roundtable between the five national leaders was focused on the development of better political and trade relationships (Atle Staalesen, “ A united Nordic front sits down with Putin”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 10, 2019.

This was deemed necessary after the four years of difficult relations that followed the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.

From Finland, with not so much love

As it happens, one month later, on 7 May, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the participants to the Arctic Council in Finland, the international body of all the nations of the Arctic region. During his speech, he declared that:

“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance, … It houses 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 per cent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore… Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade, … This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days … Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century Suez and Panama Canals”.

Mike Pompeo from Jennifer Anslen, “Pompeo: Melting sea ice “presents new trade opportunities”, CNN, May 7, 2019.

However, Mike Pompeo also focused his declaration on the strategic threat coming from Russia and China. After denouncing the threat of Chinese submarines in the Arctic, he added:

“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims? »

Mike Pompeo from Anslen, ibid.

This remark reveals how the Arctic, which has been a “lost frontier” of American geopolitics during decades, is now becoming an attractor for the U.S. strategy. This happens through the powerful combination of the region geophysical destabilization and of the Chinese maritime, commercial and political presence there (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic: the US lost frontier?”, The Red (Team) Analysis, July 14, 2014).

2. Traders and soldiers at the end of the ice

NATO in the cold

It must be noted that the remarks of Secretary Pompeo are following the first NATO Arctic manoeuvres, called “Trident Juncture 2018”. These manoeuvres mobilised 50.000 soldiers, 150 planes, 10.000 land vehicles and 60 warships (Christopher Woody, “The US Navy is pushing north, closer to Russia in freezing conditions — and it’s planning on hanging around up there“, Business Insider, 7 November 2018. They were centred on Norway and Iceland, where landing, deployment and combat exercises took place.

They were conducted to demonstrate the Reaction Capability against a hypothetical and unnamed adversary that would endanger a fellow NATO member in the Arctic region. This official “anonymousness” did not stop Russia to protest officially against this military exercise taking place very close to its land and maritime frontiers (Christopher Woody, “Russia aims its missile drills shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO’s biggest war games in years”, Business Insider, 31 October, 2018).

As it happens, in military and geo-economic terms, Trident Juncture could very well be understood as a “statement”. It “expresses” or “reminds of” the potential capability of NATO to “block » the North Atlantic end of the Northern Sea Route.

This “duel with three stake holders” redraws the maps of globalization. It is especially true given the rise of the economic and military convergence of Russia and China.

The Russian warming Arctic, an Asian attractor

The warming of the Russian Arctic is having gigantic geopolitical and business consequences, because the very effects of climate change are turned into an engine of the Russian power of attraction (Joe Romm, “Arctic Death Spiral Update: What Happens in the Arctic Affects Everywhere Else“, Think Progress, May 3, 2016). For example, the Russian energy company Novatek is building the enormous Yamal LNG plant, aiming at producing more than 16,5 millions of tons of LNG annually (Oksana Kobzeva, “Russia’s Yamal LNG is on track and on budget, says Novatek”, Reuters, September 5, 2016). 

Meanwhile, China also develops off-shore oil and gas operations in the Russian economic exclusive through cooperation with Russian companies (Atle Staalesen, “China’s Oil Company Looks at Russian Arctic LNG”, The Independent Barents Observer, June 14, 2018) . In the same time, it builds a fleet of icebreakers in order to open the “Polar Silk Road”.

Thanks to the powerful attraction exerted by the Russian strategic combination of the Arctic oil and gas extraction operations with the development of the Northern Sea Route, its continental integration is felt throughout Asia. This attraction operates on public and private actors across energy, shipping, railroad and other business sectors. Some of the major investors are from China, India, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).

3. From the trade war to the war of the cold?

Toward a cold trade war?

In other words, Mike Pompeo transposes in the Arctic region the tensions that are arising between the U.S. and China since the start of the trade war in March 2018, when the Trump administration imposed new tariffs on 50 to 60 billions worth of Chinese goods. It was followed by new tariffs on 200 billion dollars worth of Chinese goods in September 2018. And a new hike of 25% on Chinese goods could follow in May 2019 (Topic “US China Trade war”, The South China Morning Post).

The rise of neo-mercantilism

However, this transposition of the trade war in the Arctic is not “simply” about tariffs. It is also about the deployment of the Chinese commercial and potentially military sea power throughout the Arctic. From there, it also “flows” into the Atlantic American and European region. From a geopolitical point of view, this means that the U.S. are aware that China may try to compensate the effects of the U.S. trade war. And this attempt could take place through the growth of its trade relations with Europe through the Russian NSR.

Towards hot sea / cold sea theatre of operations?

In other words, the warming Arctic is expanding the confrontation between the U.S. and China to the Arctic. The comparison made by Secretary Pompeo between the Arctic region and the South China Sea is important.

Linking the South China Sea to the warming Arctic

In effect, it highlights that the U.S. could potentially expand their own sea power towards the Norway Sea and the Arctic Ocean. This may happen in a way that is similar to the installation of U.S. Sea Power in the South China Sea since the Second World War. As it happens, the ships of the Seventh Fleet are regularly claiming the U.S. right to navigate this very contested sea, especially between Japan and China (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Chinese New Silk Road part 1 – The South China Sea”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, March 13, 2017).

This is nothing but an escalation from a “trade war” to a “cold war” in a warming region. It also means that U.S. and China power relationships are now linking the trade tariffs, the South China Sea and the Arctic region. This process opens a planetary landscape for numerous experiments in neo-mercantilism and hybrid forms of an escalating confrontation between the U.S. and China.

Featured image: President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping at G20, July 8, 2017 – The White House [Public Domain]

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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1 Comment

  1. Très éclairant et effrayant !!
    Bravo Jean Michel pour la qualité de cette analyse.

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