Welcome to Over the Circle (OtC), a site dedicated to news, politics and foreign policy in the Arctic region. With the ongoing changes in the circumpolar north due to climate change and ice erosion, the region has become the focus of much greater attention on a global scale, and as a result the politics of the Arctic are also undergoing rapid changes. This site will look at the politics of the ‘Arctic Eight’ (Canada, Denmark [Faroe Islands / Greenland] Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States), but also of non-Arctic states, including in Western Europe and East Asia, which are also quickly developing their own Arctic diplomacy policies.
Among the major topics in Arctic politics are economic development, environmental concerns, energy (oil and gas), shipping and new Arctic sea routes, and new and existing regional organisations, (like the Arctic Council). While there is much discussion about the opening of the Arctic, this site will examine regional and international news with an eye to examining just what this ‘opening’ really entails.
A new article (in Finnish) by Marc Lanteigne, editor of the OtC blog, has been published in the online journal Ulkopolitiikka (Foreign Policy) on the subject of China’s expanded Arctic diplomacy. Since China became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, its interests in the far north are being seen in numerous parts of the region, ranging from the Russian Far East to Greenland.
This week, the ongoing story about the planned expansion of three airports in Greenland, including the facilities in the capital of Nuuk, saw another twist after the United States Department of Defence (DoD) released a single page statement of intent confirming American interest in potential investment in Greenlandic infrastructure with an eye to improving US and Greenlandic security interests.
The statement, signed by US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy (USDP) John Rood at the American air base at Thule in far-northern Greenland, stated that Washington would weigh the possibilities of ‘strategic investments’, including those which may serve ‘dual military and civilian purposes’. These potential projects, it was added, would serve to improve both American and NATO capabilities in the region and be to the benefit of the United States, Denmark, and ‘the people of Greenland’.
The US Embassy in Copenhagen released the statement via its Twitter feed, and there was a swift positive response by the Danish Foreign Ministry which praised [In Danish] the US statement as creating ‘very interesting potential for future cooperation’. The Danish Foreign Ministry remarks included a statement by Vivian Motzfeldt, the Greenlandic Minister for Education, Culture, Church and Foreign Affairs, saying [In Danish] that the US declaration was welcome and expressing hopes for future US investment in Greenland’s airports. Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Anders Samuelsen was also supportive, saying that stronger US-Denmark defence cooperation in Greenland would contribute to the region remaining a ‘low tension area’.
The emerging US investment offer comes right on the heels of an agreement struck in Nuuk between Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen, and Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen to allow for Danish financial support for the expansion of the three airports, including runway lengthening, at Nuuk along with the facilities at Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. Said agreement appeared to be designed to waylay a bid by a Chinese concern, namely the China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC, to invest in the airport refurbishments.
However, the Denmark-Greenland deal was denigrated by one of the coalition partners, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] which announced that it was no longer supporting the Kielsen government, leaving the coalition short of a majority in the Greenlandic parliament. Thus far, an alternative coalition partner has yet to be confirmed, leading to questions about how long the current administration will be able to remain in office without another election being called.
Danish government representatives had long been troubled about the strategic ramifications of large-scale Chinese investment in Greenland, and the addition of an American offer would also seem to suggest that Washington is also increasingly concerned about the expansion of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade interests into the Arctic. Sino-American relations have been on a steady downward trajectory since the Trump administration began, marred by an escalating dispute on bilateral trade which reached a new nadir this week with the US announcement of additional tariffs on Chinese goods worth a reported US$200 billion.
Greenland, including the Thule base, is a vital strategic area for the US security interests given growing concerns about Russian militarisation in the Arctic, including in the Nordic region. In next-door Iceland, the US military has returned to the old base facilities at Keflavík, with plans to use them as a launch point for submarine-tracking aircraft, after withdrawing from the country in 2006.
While the Danish, and now the potential American, offers of financial support for the Greenland airports can be seen as a setback for Chinese commercial interests in the region, However, the final status of the projects is far from settled, given the precarious status of Greenland’s minority government, the specifics of any future foreign investment in airport infrastructure, and the fact that China has many other actual and potential policy avenues to Greenland, as well as the greater Arctic region.
As a recent article in the online journal Cryopoliticsexplained, Beijing has investment interests in numerous other parts of the Arctic, including mining in Greenland and oil and gas projects in Russia as well as natural gas investment in Alaska. The unsuccessful bid by the CCCC may simply be a small bump in China’s widening ‘Ice Silk Road’.
As well, the US statement of intent was very short on specifics regarding both the investment amounts, (and types), as well as the timeframe. It was also stressed that the statement was not legally binding ‘under international or national law’. Caution therefore may be warranted about the particulars of the US statement, given the very ambiguous status of current US Arctic policy under President Donald Trump, as evidenced by no specific Arctic policy statements being made since his administration began, as well as other Arctic related projects, such as new American icebreakers for the country’s Coast Guard, at considerable risk of being buried in red tape. What can be said, however, is that US interest in further Greenland investment is another sign of the growing profile of the island in both Arctic and international affairs.
This week, China’s second icebreaker, and the first to be built indigenously, was officially launched at Jiangnan Shipyard [In Chinese] near Shanghai. The vessel expected to be fully ready [In Chinese] for its first mission at some point in 2019, after undergoing field testing and final refurbishing. The Xuelong 2(雪龙2) or Snow Dragon 2, was built by China State Shipbuilding Corp., in cooperation with the Helsinki-based shipbuilding firm Aker Arctic, with construction begun in December 2016.
The ship will be first of its type to use ‘two-way’ icebreaking capabilities, meaning the ability to fracture ice with both its bow and stern, and is reportedly able to break up ice to 1.5 metres in thickness at speeds of approximately 2-3 knots (or 3.7-5.6 kph), with a maximum speed of fifteen knots (9.3 kph), and is able to operate in temperatures as low as -30ºC. The ship has a length of 122.5 metres, a displacement of approximately 13,990 tonnes, and is capable of supporting a crew of up to ninety persons. According to the Chinese online journal Science and Technology Daily, (Keji ribao shegong 科技日报社公) the Xuelong 2 possesses [In Chinese] sophisticated monitoring and sensor equipment and communications technology, while conforming to strict environmental standards.
The new vessel serves two major Chinese polar policy initiatives, the first being the need to develop domestic icebreaking technology, and the second for the country to be able to conduct scientific missions at both poles simultaneously. The vessel’s older, larger sibling, the Xuelong, was built in Ukraine in 1993 before being transferred to China, and was subject to an extensive refit in 2007. The Xuelong 2 is expected to operate as a versatile scientific vessel, capable of more varied missions in the areas of atmospheric studies, biology and oceanography. Both ships will operate under the aegis of the Polar Research Institute of China (Zhongguo Jidi Yanjiu Zhongxin 中国极地研究中心) and will be used for future Arctic and Antarctic scientific missions.
Beijing confirmed in June of this year that it was seeking to build a heavier icebreaker in future which would be nuclear powered, unlike the two Snow Dragons. This may possibly be accomplished with Russian assistance, given that country’s extensive experience with building nuclear icebreaking vessels. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, had built ten nuclear icebreakers, with the first of three new LK-60Ya (ЛК-60Я) class nuclear icebreaking ships, the Arktika(Арктика), expected to enter full service next year.
However, it remains unclear at this early stage whether China will attempt to build its third icebreaker domestically or with foreign assistance. According to reporting by the Chinese news service Global Times, an official tender for the nuclear icebreaker contract was issued in late June by the China National Nuclear Corporation (中国核工业集团公司 Zhongguo He Gongye Jituan Gongsi). As China’s January 2018 governmental white paper on the Arctic stated, the country is seeking to make use of newly available technologies to build ‘new-type icebreakers’ so that China can remain engaged in vital research in the areas of exploration and research.
It has been an active summer for China’s Arctic interests, as in addition to the launch of the Xuelong 2, the Chinese cargo vessel Tian’en, (天恩) operated by China’s Cosco shipping, completed its run through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) this month, docking at ports in France and the Netherlands before traveling on to Sweden. This summer, Cosco ships were on track to complete five transits in the NSR, including by the vessel Tian Qi (天琪), which left the Finnish port of Kotka en route to Qingdao and expected to arrive later this month. This month, it was also announced that the Russian gas company Novotek would be partnering with Cosco to establish a new company, Maritime Arctic Transport LLC (Морской арктический транспор), dedicated to the building of liquefied natural gas transport vessels for the Arctic.
Finally, this week saw great power summit diplomacy at work between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, when the two leaders met at an economic conference in Vladivostok on the eve on the joint Vostok-2018 war games, to discuss further economic cooperation, including potential investment in the Russian Far East, and later feasted on pancakes and caviar with vodka. The Arctic is shaping up as one of the areas which may see greater Sino-Russian political and economic cooperation.
[The editor would like to thank Malte Humpert for his assistance in the preparation of this post.]
Greenland’s political system is facing a major shakeup this week, as one of the four parties making up the governing coalition, Partii Naleraq [In Danish/Greenlandic] (PN) announced that it was withdrawing its support [In Danish]. This move was in protest of plans for increased Danish-Greenlandic financial cooperation in the refurbishment of three of Greenland’s airports. The airport issue had already become a delicate subject in local politics in recent months, as it had illuminated the larger question of Greenlandic independence and future economic links with Denmark.
The leader of PN, Hans Enoksen, stated that he could no longer support [In Danish] the coalition government in light of plans by Prime Minister Kim Kielsen to negotiate potential Danish co-financing of the renovation, (including runway expansions), of the airports in the capital, Nuuk, as well as in the towns of Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. The Danish government had been growing increasingly concerned about Greenland’s plans to accept bids for the project, especially when one of the applications was revealed to be from a Chinese firm, China Communications Construction Company (Zhongguo jiaotong jianshe youxiangongsi 中国交通建设有限公司) or CCCC. In March of this year, it was announced that CCCC was one of the companies shortlisted for the contract, despite unease in Copenhagen.
Mr Enoksen argued that Denmark’s offer to provide financial backing for the airport projects represented a Danish policy overstretch as well as interference in domestic Greenlandic politics by Copenhagen. PN had been at odds with its coalition partners in recent weeks due to the airport issues as well as opposition over proposed fishing quotas in East and Northwestern Greenland. In a published communiqué [In Danish] from Mr Enoksen to the Prime Minister’s office, it was stated that the PN was unhappy both with the airport negotiations as well as poor intra-coalition communication over other economic issues.
The withdrawal of PN, which has been staunchly pro-independence in its policies, comes on the eve of a visit [In Danish] by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen to Nuuk in order to meet with Prime Minister Kielsen on joint economic concerns, including the airport projects. PN currently holds three seats in the 31-seat Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), and so its departure will deprive the coalition of its majority. The remaining thirteen seats in the now-defunct sixteen-seat coalition [pdf, In Danish] are divided [In Danish] between PM Kielsen’s Siumut party (ten seats), Atassut (two) and the Nunatta Qitornai (NQ) party (one).
The strong differences of political opinion over the airport finance question, and especially the possibility of Chinese investment in the project, underscores the ongoing issue of how to interpret the 2009 Self-Rule Agreement, which is the most recent legal document which clarifies Danish-Greenlandic relations and the jurisdiction of both governments. Under the agreement, domestic economic affairs in Greenland are under the purview of Nuuk, with Denmark retaining the right to oversee Greenlandic foreign policy and defence. With climate change, including the melting of the Greenlandic Ice Sheet, more of the land and surrounding waters in Greenland are being viewed as more open to greater economic activity, including foreign joint ventures.
However, The Danish government has hinted on more than one occasion that it considered Chinese investment in Greenland to be a foreign policy and security matter, especially due to concerns about potential future economic influence by Beijing. As a December 2017 report [pdf] by the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) stated:
‘As a result of close connections between Chinese companies and China’s political system, there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size.’
Chinese firms have been involved in other areas of the Greenlandic economy, most notably mining, and with China’s Belt and Road trade routes recently expanding into the Arctic, it is very possible that Greenland may factor into the growing number of Chinese economic partnerships in the region.
The options for PM Kielsen and the remaining coalition partners are limited [In Danish], including attempting to continue to govern in minority status, (although there is no tradition of that practice in the Greenlandic parliament). Other choices for the government are to seek out a new coalition partner among the parties currently in opposition, such as Inuit Ataqatigiit or the Democrats (or Demokraatit), or calling a snap election, which would be the second vote in less than five months. Regardless of what choice is made, the questions surrounding the future of Greenland’s economic ties, and future political relations, with Denmark are unlikely to fade soon.
[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi and Mikkel Møller Schøler for their invaluable assistance in the researching of this post.]
Addendum: It was announced on 10 September that a deal had been struck between the governments of Denmark and Greenland to allow the Danish government to pay 700 million Danish kroner (US$109 million) to obtain a one-third stake in Greenland’s airport concern, Kalaallit Airports. The agreement was struck during the meeting between Prime Minister Kielsen and Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen. Copenhagen also agreed to provide DKK450 million (US$70 million) in credit and another DKK450 million in loans, via the Nordic Investment Bank, for the projects. This announcement would appear to shut down the bid by CCCC.
Also during the meeting, about seventy Partii Naleraq supporters held a demonstration [In Danish] against Danish investment in the airport projects. Although PM Kielsen has ruled out an early election, it remains unclear whether his administration will attempt to continue governing in a minority situation or seek out another coalition partner.
On 11-15 September, the Russian military will be engaging in military exercises on a scale not seen since the ‘Zapad-81’ (Запад-81) war games conducted by the then-Soviet Army and the Warsaw Pact in 1981. The manoeuvres will take place in Siberia and the Russian Far East (RFE), with China and Mongolia also providing troops and support. The ‘Vostok 2018’ (Восток 2018) exercises will include approximately 300,000 Russian personnel, (roughly a third of the entire Russian military), operating within the Central and Eastern Military Districts of the country as well as the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk regions of the Russian Arctic. Both the Central and Eastern Districts include large swaths of the Russian Arctic, with the Eastern District incorporating much of the RFE and the Russian Pacific Fleet.
At a time when relations between Moscow and the United States, as well as the rest of NATO, remain strained, the exercises will likely serve to advertise to the international community the renewed capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces (Вооружённые Си́лы Росси́йской Федера́ции). The event will also demonstrate growing military cooperation between Russia and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as approximately 3200 Chinese forces, reportedly selected from the PLA’s Northern Theatre Command (Beibu Zhanqu 北部战区), are expected to participate in the operation, along with an unspecified number of personnel from the Mongolian Armed Forces (Монгол улсын зэвсэгт хүчин).
This week, Chinese and Mongolian participants received preliminary information about the various components of the upcoming mock operation at the military grounds in Tsugol, located in the Russian Transbaikal region near the Mongolian border. Although Chinese participation in the exercises will be limited, it will nonetheless provide an opportunity for PLA forces to learn about current Russian military tactics, (including recent Russian operations in the Syrian civil war), as well as to demonstrate growing strategic trust between Beijing and Russia.
According to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Vostok 2018 operations will involve thirty-six thousand pieces of equipment, including armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as aircraft and drones. Naval vessels, including from the Arctic Ocean-based Russian Northern Fleet (Северный флот), are also expected to take part. Moscow has sought to frame the exercises as a defensive endeavour, prompted by ongoing Western military activities, including in Northern Europe, near Russia’s borders.
Case in point, the next major NATO military exercise, codenamed ‘Trident Juncture 18’, will be taking place primarily in Norway in October-November of this year. Non-NATO members Finland and Sweden will also be contributing, reflecting ongoing concerns in the Nordic region about Russian military activities in the Arctic and North Atlantic. Although Russian officials stressed the operations were not meant to target any specific country, and instead would focus on the general readiness of Russian forces to function in a combat situation, the size and scope of the operations have been interpreted as a ‘costly signal’ [pdf] , (especially considering the price tag and logistics of these exercises), to the West that the Russian military remains formidable.
Sino-Russian relations in the RFE have undergone many iterations since China and the USSR fought a brief border war in 1969. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the Chinese and Russian governments were anxious to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict by agreeing on border demarcations which would be suitable to both sides, especially since the two countries were anxious to pull back the thousands of troops stationed on the frontier. The Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin was also facing considerable economic crises throughout the 1990s which also strained military resources, while Beijing was seeking to turn its attention to looming security challenges elsewhere, including maritime security and a cooling diplomatic relationship with the United States. The complex process of defining the almost 4300 kilometre-long border was finally completed via an agreement in July 2008, while military relations between China and Russia improved via bilateral cooperation as well as through multilateral organisations in Eurasia such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
The last Vostok military exercises in 2014 not only excluded China, but were viewed by some outside observers as representing a hedge against growing Chinese military power. However, after the Crimea/Donbas crises in Ukraine after 2014 and the subsequent sanctions placed on Russia by the West in response, Sino-Russian relations have improved both in economic and increasingly strategic areas, even though the possibility of a formal bilateral alliance remains negligible. These closer relations have been reflected in both the Russian Arctic and the RFE. China sees Russia, understandably, as holding many of the keys to Beijing’s Arctic interests, including access to resources as well as enhancing Chinese shipping between Asia and Europe. Although it can readily be argued that China and Russia are currently on two different economic trajectories, the government of Xi Jinping has sought [paywall] to improve trade ties with Russia and highlight mutual geo-strategic interests, including mutual concerns about American power.
There is much talk in both countries of an emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’ which could greatly improve economic conditions in the Russian Arctic through energy and infrastructure cooperation. China is also a major financial supporter, including via Beijing’s Silk Road Fund, of the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, with China receiving its first LNG shipment from the project in July this year.
As well, after initially being reluctant to invest in the Russian Far East due to the perceived high start-up costs involved, Beijing has changed its position over the past five years, with many high-ranking Chinese governmental officials praising the great economic opportunities emerging in the RFE, including in the energy and commodities sectors. For example, then Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao suggested at an economic conference in St. Petersburg in May 2014 that conditions were ideal for the creation of a joint development zone between China and eastern Russia. Chinese interest in diversifying partnerships in the fossil fuel and commodities sectors, including expanded Russia trade, may only increase in light of the worsening trade war with the United States.
Both the Vostok and the NATO war games in the coming weeks further add to the question of whether great power politics and geo-strategic rivalries are starting to ‘climb the wall’ and become more visible in the Arctic. Although environmental concerns continue to dominate Arctic politics, these issues may have to give way to more traditional military concerns, especially as East-West differences continue to become more pronounced.