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.
It has been a longstanding joke in Oslo diplomatic circles that Norway and China have always been close neighbours since they are separated by only one country, with the minor detail being that the country in question is the Russian Federation. Yet, the closeness between China and Norway was sorely tested during 2010-16 when bilateral diplomatic ties were downgraded in the wake of the Nobel Prize incident. Since that time, recent efforts to improve the relationship have included updated trade and exchange agreements, as well as dialogues and information-sharing revolving around the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Sino-Norwegian free trade talks, which fell into abeyance during the diplomatic freeze, have now restarted, and there is the possibility of a completed deal as early as this year. Should a free trade agreement be successfully concluded, Norway would become the second Arctic state, (after Iceland in 2013), to have preferential access to Chinese markets.
With all of these events taking place, it was understandable that this year’s Barents Spektakel, which promotes itself as ‘Norway’s most border-crossing festival’, settled on a China theme this year. The annual event, which this year included art and cinema exhibits, music, literature and poetry readings, markets and seminars, took place over five days in the Arctic Norwegian town of Kirkenes, (population about 3600), a short distance from the Russian border. The cross-border festival, which has been held since 2005, decided on the theme of ‘The World’s Most Northern Chinatown’ this year.
The decision to make China the centrepiece of the festival not only reflected the restored relations between the two states, but also increased talk about the possibility of China playing a leading role in the development of an ‘Ice Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路) which would extend from Northeast Asia to the Nordic region via Siberia, as well as the Russian coast of the Arctic Ocean as the potential for far northern shipping moves closer to reality. The Ice Silk Road has been connected to China’s greater ‘Belt and Road’ trade route policies since mid-2017, and further confirmed as a priority for China’s Arctic engagement in Beijing’s January 2018 white paper on the Arctic.
Kirkenes, as well as other northern Norwegian coastal towns, are paying attention to the possibility of increased Asian shipping vessels making use of the Arctic for faster transits to European markets. Since becoming an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, China has greatly enhanced its presence in many parts of the circumpolar north. Since the Xi Jinping government released its Arctic white paper, China has continued to expand its economic interests in the region to include investment in natural gas, (the Yamal LNG Project in Siberia), potential mining in Greenland, and enhanced shipping in the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic Ocean and possible port projects.
In Kirkenes, another great power, namely Russia, is never far away either geographically or culturally. The town lies only about sixteen kilometres away from the Russian border crossing station at Storskog, (with the city of Murmansk a mere three-hour drive away from Kirkenes), and Russian cultural influence not hard to find in even a short walk around central Kirkenes. In 2012, Norway and Russia agreed to establish a visa free zone on their border region, encompassing an area about sixty kilometres wide, including Kirkenes and its close-by sister Russian city of Nikel, (which got into a dispute with Oslo over pollution emissions crossing the border earlier this year), in the hopes of developing a deeper Barents economic community.
Some Finnmark regional leaders had even gone as far as to recommend the eventual implementation of visa free travel between the whole of Norway and Russia, but such a goal would be complicated to say the least, not only because of worsened relations between Russia and Western Europe but also Norway’s inclusion in the Schengen Zone, an internal visa-free travel area which includes much of Europe.
The sensitivity of the 196km-long Norway-Russia border had been illustrated over the past five years when migrants seeking to escape the ongoing civil war in Syria attempted to cross into Norway via the Russian border, with numbers reaching a peak in 2015. The Barents region has also been caught between the worsening relations between NATO and the Russian military. Norway was the primary host of the Trident Juncture 2018 NATO exercises which took place late last year, and the news from earlier this week by the Norwegian Intelligence service that eleven Sukhoi Su-24 (also known by NATO as Fencer-type) fighter jets from the Russian air base at Monchegorsk had recently staged a mock attack of the radar installations at Vardø, about 82 kilometres from Kirkenes. There have also been complaints from the Norwegian government that Russia has been periodically interfering with GPS signals in the Norway’s high north, assertions which Moscow has denied.
Even though government-to-government relations between Norway and Russia have become more difficult in recent years, especially in the wake of the Western sanctions on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014, in Kirkenes and other bordering towns in the Sør-Varanger region, public perceptions of Russia are in many cases more varied. There remains much respect for the Red Army’s central role in the liberation of the East Finnmark region in 1944-5 during the latter stages of the Second World War, and it was confirmed this month that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be traveling to Kirkenes in October for the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the freeing of the Finnmark region from Nazi occupation.
Russian markets are frequent events in Kirkenes, and during this year’s Barents Spektakel, traders from across the border set up shop in the compact town square selling goods including wool clothes, Soviet military hats, crystal ware, and wooden matryoshkadolls. Russian tourists were easy to spot along with visitors from China and across Europe and elsewhere. Despite the current geopolitical situation, Kirkenes, along with other regions on both sides of the border reflects a developing sub-regional identity connecting Northern Norway with North-western Russia. In 1993, the Barents Regional Council was formed, bringing together fourteen counties in the Barents Sea region, (from Norway and Russia as well as Finland and Sweden), as well as representation from regional Sami peoples as well as Nenets and Vepsians indigenous communities in Russia.
In addition to complicated relations with Russia, Oslo is also wrestling with China’s growing Arctic interests as well as its increased power on a global scale. The Norwegian government is trying to decide whether to accept further cooperation with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the development of fifth generation (5G) mobile technology, in the wake of concerns about the firms close ties to Beijing and the possibility of espionage. The United States, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have all recently opted to ban engagement with Huawei, while other economies such as Canada and the United Kingdom are considering following suit.
Earlier this month, Morten Haga Lunde, the Chief Director of the Norwegian Intelligence Service (Etterretningstjenesten) stated earlier this month that China’s growing Arctic presence may present a challenge to Norway’s strategic interests, a point which also explored in the organisation’s most recent annual review [pdf, In Norwegian]. Mr Lunde also noted that as China develops further economic interests in the Arctic, the eventual presence of Chinese naval vessels in the Nordic Arctic could not be ruled out [In Norwegian].
From the viewpoint of Kirkenes and the surrounding region, however, the prospect of an Ice Silk Road extending well into the Arctic Nordic region is commonly seen as more of an economic opportunity, especially give the possibility of increased ship visits and the potential for Chinese investment in transportation infrastructure. During a seminar on Asia-Arctic relations held during the Barents Spektakel, co-hosted by the University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway, and the Municipality of Sør-Varanger, there was much optimism from some speakers about the potential benefits of Chinese infrastructure investment in Northern Norway.
Mr Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of the Sør-Varanger Municipality [In Norwegian], spoke about the possibilities of Chinese investment in a potential rail link connecting Kirkenes with Roveniemi in Finland, which would serve as a link between Russian/East Asian railway networks and those in Europe. Despite a recent report from Finland which suggested that such a link may not be economically viable in its current planned form, Mr Rafaelsen expressed the hopes that Kirkenes could not only serve as a future Arctic rail hub, but also as an expanded port for Chinese vessels and a transit point in a proposed fibre-optic cable which could also be constructed between China and Northern Europe.
Mr Trond Haukenes, CEO of the East Finnmark Regional Council, added in his presentation that China could also make contributions to regional tourism, as well as potential cooperation with local mining interests, including iron, (overseen in the region by Sydvaranger), and quartz for smartphone manufacturing, (the Oslo-based firm Elkem oversees a mine at Tana in Finnmark). He also noted that direct flights are being planned between China and the Finnmark region, which could further facilitate new economic cooperation.
The seminar also included regional politics and economic experts from Europe, East Asia and Russia, examining the various facets of China’s growing Arctic interests through the lens of borders and how their nature may be changing. The overall Barents Spektakel this year did much to underscore that despite persistent political and security concerns between Oslo and Moscow, the concept of borders in this corner of the Arctic often takes on a much more nuanced aspect.
As climate change continues to affect the Arctic, including in Greenland, there is growing interest from many countries about the possibility of expanded resource extraction on the island. China has become a major player in potential mining projects, and recent further steps were taken by Chinese firms to engage in mining joint ventures.
The planned rare earth elements (REE) and uranium mine at Kvanefjeld is one major example, and this article, written for the online Asia-Pacific affairs journal The Diplomatby Marc Lanteigne (OtC editor) and Mingming Shi, looks at the recent progress of that project as well as the potential local and international effects.
This week, the final report from a working group [In Finnish] assembled to gauge the viability of a railway system linking the far northern cities of Rovaneimi (Finland) and Kirkenes (Norway) suggested that, at present, such a link would not be financially workable. Although the report [pdf], issued by the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications, was not seen as the last word on the subject, and the document noted that many other variables needed to be discussed before a final verdict on the endeavour could be given, the paper did represent, at the very least, a yellow light for the project.
The Arctic Corridor, as the railway link has been officially termed, was conceived as a necessary component in the development of transportation corridors in and around the Arctic Ocean. A permanent rail line between Rovaniemi and Kirkenes, it was argued, would most effectively connect [video] the Nordic Arctic with Western Europe on one side and Russia and China on the other.
This line would, in theory, open up possibilities of increased shipping, tourism and transport hub development, taking advantage of the growing development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in Siberia and potentially even the emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路) envisioned by Beijing as part of its expanding Belt and Road trade networks. It was also suggested [pdf] that the link could assist with mining expansion in Northern Finland, allowing raw materials to be more effectively transported out of the region to various markets. The railway line was touted as completing the process of creating the shortest and most direct route between Europe and Asia, including northern China.
The three major considerations in determining whether the proposed railway construction should go forward were the related financial models, legal and planning issues and potential effects on traditional Sámi lands. The findings of the report suggested that the current state of the Finnish rail system was such that further traffic which would be generated by the proposed Arctic link would be too much for the current overall system to handle, and that the costs of building the Rovaniemi-Kirkenes link could not be justified using models of anticipated use.
There had been previous concerns expressed about whether the demand for cargo transport in the Nordic Arctic was high enough for a rail link to be built, but there was the other question of whether said demand might increase as the Arctic region opens up to greater economic activity. Private financing could in theory be obtained, but that outcome was seen as uncertain even though tourism in the region might add to the attractiveness of a railway through that part of the Nordic Arctic.
It was also underlined in the report that any further consideration of this rail line must be undertaken with the full participation in the debates from the local Sámi populations, given the potential impact of the rail line on traditional reindeer herding and other cultural and economic activities. The Sámi Council had been critical of the rail project, stating in a September 2018 report that better consultations were required between the Finnish and Norwegian governments and Sámi officially before any construction could take place. Of specific concern was the possibility that the rail line could split reindeer habitats and breeding grounds. As the working paper stated, ‘Both international law and national legislations of Finland and Norway acknowledge the special status of the Sámi as an indigenous people. This cannot be denied nor passed in possible future phases of the Arctic railway.’
Among the recommendations of the working group’s report was closer coordination between Helsinki and Oslo on future planning for the link, and that the complexity of the plan required greater input from the European Union, (Finland is a member of the EU while Norway is not, but Oslo does cooperate with the EU in several areas and sectors via the European Economic Area / EEA agreement). The need for funding ‘from several sources’ for the rail link was also stressed, although there were no specifics in that area included in the working paper.
One question might be whether China might step in to provide potential funding, given that the project could be matched to Chinese development plans in the NSR region related to the Ice Silk Road, including potential infrastructure investment in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk. A brochure advertising the benefits of the Arctic Corridor was also published in Chinese [pdf] by the project’s coordinators. In January this year, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö visited Beijing for meetings with his counterpart, Xi Jinping, and among the topics raised were the opportunities for joint Belt and Road cooperation and the development of Arctic shipping routes.
The findings of the working group have underscored the ongoing difficulties present in developing Arctic transit corridors, as well as the questions of whether the creation of various routes via land and sea in the Arctic will be economically feasible, and if so when.
For much of North America, it was unnecessary to travel to the country’s polar region to experience Arctic weather, as snowstorms and extreme cold affected much of both Canada and the United States this week. In fact, Canada’s capital, Ottawa received the dubious distinction of being the world’s coldest capital city, beating out the usual suspects Moscow and Ulan Bator.
However, Canada also made Arctic news of sorts for a different reason this week, when it was reported that the North Magnetic Pole, which used to be situated in the Canadian Arctic until 2017 when the location veered towards the central Arctic Ocean towards Siberia, had recently shifted position much faster than expected. The news prompted requests by American authorities to the authorities which oversee the pole’s location, namely the British Geological Survey and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to submit updates to the World Magnetic Model (WMM), normally due in 2020, this month instead.
The North Magnetic Pole is the moving point in the Northern Hemisphere where Earth’s magnetic field points vertically downwards. The exact location of this pole (separate from the fixed geographic North Pole at 90ºN), changes over time due to conditions within the planet’s core, specifically the movement of liquid iron. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the North Magnetic Pole has moved from Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, (in what is now Nunavut), to the central Arctic Ocean in the direction of the Siberian Coast.
The pole, (which at the time was situated on the Boothia Peninsula), was originally isolated in 1831 by British explorer James Clark Ross, was discovered by John Ross, James’ uncle and an officer with the British Royal Navy. Famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, during his exploration of the Northwest Passage, took measurements in 1904 which suggested that the pole was indeed moving. Last year, the pole crossed the International Date Line and entered the Eastern Hemisphere on its way to the northern Russian coast.
What has caught many scientists’ interest however has been the acceleration of the pole’s movements since the early 1990s, from approximately fifteen kilometres per year at that time to approximately 55km now. Various rationales have been advanced to explain this recent activity, including interactions between two sections of magnetic field between Canada and Siberia, as well as a magnetic pulse beneath South America which occurred in 2016. Another contributing factor, according to a 2017 article [pdf], may be a jet of fast-moving molten iron beneath Canada.
Requirements for updated measurements of the location (and speed and trajectory) of the North Magnetic Pole are imperative for its use its use in navigation systems for aircraft and ships, (as well in smartphones). It was originally hoped the revised model would be released last week. However, the month-long US government shutdown, which has also closed down the operations of the NOAA, forced a delay in the model’s official updating until at least the end of January, and possibly longer, given the current lack of progress on a deal to reopen the government.
Once the model is finally released, it would be expected to predict the movement of the North Magnetic Pole for the next five years, but given the surprising travels of said pole thus far, further study may be needed sooner rather than later.
Update: With the American government back in operation (for now), the NOAA released new information on 4 February on the Magnetic Pole’s location and trajectory.
This week may mark a turning point in the tumultuous process of finalising the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union when a long-delayed parliamentary vote is scheduled to take place on the exit deal proposed by the Conservative government of Theresa May. Even if the vote passes, which reports suggest is very unlikely, the ‘Brexit’ process may still be far from resolved despite the looming March deadline for the process to be completed. The possibility of a ‘no-deal Brexit’ remains a strong possibility at present, and in addition to the impact of such an outcome on British domestic politics, there is also the concern about UK regional (and border) policies with Europe, including the Arctic region.
Parts of the Arctic have already tangentially factored into the Brexit process in various ways. For example a compromise position on the EU withdrawal which is popular in some British political quarters is the so-called ‘Norway model’, which would involve London emulating the distinct economic relationship which Norway has with the European Union. Norway is not an EU member, but it is part of the European Single Market, the European Economic Area (EEA) and the Schengen Agreement on borders, (the UK is not part of Schengen at present).
The Norway model is favoured by policymakers worried about a ‘hard Brexit’ creating economic shocks throughout the British economy, but is opposed by others who point out that the model would also entail being subject to many EU regulations in exchange for staying within the Single Market, but without associated voting rights. As well, under the Norway option Britain would still be obliged to allow for free movement of EU citizens, a problem since restricting immigration was a major rationale for ‘leave’ voters.
It was also revealed this week that the UK was in low-key talks with Canada about jump-starting a bilateral free trade agreement which could enter into force possibly as early as 2020, assuming an orderly British withdrawal from the EU. There has also been much support for the UK to potentially (re-)join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), which Britain co-founded in 1960 but left in 1973.
The four-party EFTA has two Arctic members Iceland and Norway as well as Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and while there has been some support for British admission to the EFTA, there have been some reservations expressed recently as well, including a pointed quote from a member of the Norwegian Høyre (Conservative) party, regarding post-Brexit Britain, ‘I think you would mess it all up for us, the way you have messed it all up for yourselves’.
The government of Greenland has also been watching the Brexit situation closely, given imports of Greenlandic seafood to the United Kingdom. Greenland is not an EU member, but due to its status as part of the Kingdom of Denmark is allowed to export products to Union members without tariffs, a situation which would not apply to the UK should a no-deal Brexit take place. The government of the Faroe Islands has expressed similar interests in preserving its seafood trade with the UK after Brexit.
Another potential side effect of the Brexit process is the question of maritime borders, which could also impact British relations with its Arctic neighbours. As was reported last week in Al-Jazeera, a no-deal Brexit might produce fishing boundary disputes reminiscent of the ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1970s and previously, when UK and Icelandic fishing boats periodically clashed over disputed fishing zones.
In terms of Britain’s overall Arctic policy after Brexit, there is the question of how UK research in the far north will be affected after the country disconnects from the EU and its own scientific programmes. The UK sought to clarify its stance on Arctic diplomacy with an updated policy paper published last year by the May government. The paper [pdf] included comments which affirmed that the Arctic would be a major component of post-Brexit UK foreign policy, including British regional cooperation as well as specific initiatives with key Arctic governments. The country was an original observer state in the Arctic Council, and has frequently touted its status as the ‘Arctic’s closest neighbour’ in regards to its geography.
Also last year, the British government released a separate document [pdf] outlining its expanding strategic interests in the Arctic, especially in the wake of still-poor relations between London and Moscow. With Russia’s strategic policies in the Arctic being seen as turning more assertive in much of Northern Europe, Britain after Brexit would be under pressure to confirm its own capabilities of securing its interests in the Atlantic-Arctic region.
In Scotland, which has traditionally been more sympathetic to the EU and less optimistic about Brexit, the Arctic has become a notable means for distinguishing the Scottish government’s differing foreign policy views from that of London. Scottish policymakers, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, have been regular participants at Arctic Circle events, and Edinburgh hosted its own breakout Arctic Circle forum in November 2017. Although it is unclear whether Brexit may spark a push towards another Scottish referendum vote, it is very likely that should moves towards another vote take place, the idea of better connecting Scotland to Arctic affairs would be a factor in any such debate.
Even though much of the Brexit debate so far has focussed on its potential effects on UK domestic politics and economic affairs, as well as future British relations with the EU, it is becoming more evident that the Arctic will also be play a role in, and be affected by, the still-bumpy road and uncertain destination Brexit represents.