Over the Circle (OtC) is a site dedicated to news, politics and current affairs in the Arctic region.
‘And in Between, There Are Doors’: Europe, the Arctic, and Shared Spaces
Although it has long been commonplace to refer to the Arctic as a single region, given similar geography, climate conditions, and oftentimes socio-economic challenges shared by far-northern regions, it is also not unusual to use the terms ‘European Arctic’, ‘North American Arctic’ and ‘Russian Arctic’, particularly in relation to politics and economics. In the past month, the European Arctic has increasingly found itself in the global spotlight, as the region continues to experience various spillover effects from Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Finland has now become the thirty-first member of NATO, adding significantly to the alliance’s already growing Arctic interests. Nordic neighbour Sweden also awaits membership, an outcome potentially resting on the results of a runoff election on 25 May in Türkiye (Turkey) between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, with the former having blocked Sweden’s membership, and the latter, who has taken on a more pro-Western foreign policy stance, promising to support the bid.
NATO, and its future in the wake of Russian aggression, was a central talking point at this month’s Lennart Meri conference in Tallinn. The event’s theme, ‘Incipit Vita Nova – So Begins New Life’, was especially timely, as many European governments are now looking to the future of the region, politically, economically, and strategically. While the Arctic was not a main topic at the event, far northern affairs were rarely far from the conversations given ongoing concerns about Moscow’s military posture, as well as how to define a victory for Ukraine and Kyiv’s future relations with both NATO and the European Union. At the same time, the conference highlighted strengthened ties between the Baltic states and their Nordic neighbours, as both subregions were united in addressing threats from Russia.
At one of the initial panels, the three Baltic leaders discussed [video] the necessity of breaking the Russian government’s cycle of aggression, and how best to hold Russian leaders accountable. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas called for an international tribunal to address the crime of aggression, while her counterpart in Lithuania, Ingrida Šimonytė, suggested that there remains a tendency to view the invasion as strictly a regional crisis, despite the serious potential for the violence to spread further.
Related themes at the event included the future of NATO, and of the overall global security architecture, the specific challenges facing Ukraine’s defence today, as well as broader issues of American strategic cooperation with Europe, hybrid threats, and energy security. This last topic was especially appropriate given that Russian oil shipments to Europe, including via the Arctic, have sharply declined since last year, leading to debates over alternative sources, (with Norway’s supplies now being more widely sought). Yet, according to recent figures by the International Energy Agency, Russia’s overall oil exports in April this year rebounded, with China and India, along with other Asian markets, the primary buyers.
Last week also witnessed the successful, albeit muted, transfer of the chair (or in Norwegian, lederskap), of the Arctic Council from Russia to Norway. Tradition was broken as the handover was accomplished via a virtual meeting, despite invitations by Moscow to conduct the handover in the Siberian city of Salekhard. Ultimately, no foreign ministers from the ‘Arctic 7’ states attended, while the online meeting was the first Council event which has officially included Russia since February of last year, due to the ‘pause’ in the organisation’s activities. The post-meeting document [pdf] was also a conservative affair, merely a short statement stressing the need to ‘safeguard and strengthen’ the Council, and confirming Norway’s chairing status as of this month.
Norway, which will hold the chair until 2025 until it will be passed to Denmark, now has the Brobdingnagian task of finding (and maintaining) the appropriate level of engagement with the Russian government, including finding ways to invite Moscow’s participation in Council activities, especially around climate change, which require all members to engage. Two months ago, in its capacity as chair, released [pdf] its policy priorities, in which there was a substantial attempt to keep to the original mandate of the Council, namely promoting scientific, environmental and developmental endeavours and cooperation.
The announcement that the handover had been successfully completed, to everyone’s quiet relief, was made during the 2023 Dutch Polar Symposium in Den Haag. During that event there was also a focus on promoting closer scientific cooperation despite the difficult diplomatic circumstances. Discussions during one panel on the role of the Arctic Council quickly shifted to the perceived competition between politics and science in the far north, and various ways in which scientific cooperation was not only vital in combatting the alarming shifts in regional environmental conditions, but also in keeping essential communication lines open. Netherlands has been a longstanding observer in the Arctic Council, and has played many roles in developing polar research, and this meeting also underscored the role of non-Arctic states, including within Europe, in sustaining regional scientific endeavours.
At the same time, the invasion of Ukraine will render ‘business as usual’ an impossibility, as the war will continue to act as Banquo’s ghost throughout future Council deliberations. As a recent report explained, under Norway’s aegis the Council could operate at a near-normal level while constantly having to navigate political obstacles, it could also quietly split as the majority of work is conducted primarily by the A7, or the Council could erode beyond its ability to function, opening the door for new regional organisations to appear, possibly involving expanded participation by non-Arctic states such as China.
In a foreign policy document [in Russian] published by the Kremlin in March this year, while there was no mention of the Arctic Council, the paper included references to ‘neutralization’ of any actions by states which seek to limit Russian rights in its Arctic waters, and a call for greater cooperation with non-Arctic states, a likely nod to Beijing.
In April of this year, a memorandum of understanding between China and Russia, which carried much symbolic value as well as security implications, was signed in Murmansk. Under the MoU, the China Coast Guard (中国海警局) would accompany Russian security services in joint maritime operations, via the principles of ‘good-neighbourliness and win-win cooperation’ [in Chinese]. It remained unclear, however, what the specific effects of this cooperation would be in the Russian Arctic, given Moscow’s sensitivity regarding any foreign activities in its far northern waters.
Moreover, while both powers have sought to co-develop a Polar Silk Road in the Russian Arctic since 2017, in the aftermath of the global pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, bilateral cooperation in the region has been sporadic at best. This may change, however, as Moscow appears to be making quiet plans to move beyond the Council in its Arctic policymaking, with reports that Russia may spearhead a new research station in Svalbard which would be jointly operated with fellow members of the BRICS group (Brazil, China, India and South Africa). The BRICS may be soon experiencing a renaissance of sorts as the upcoming meeting of the group in Cape Town is expected to address the interests of several governments seeking to become members as well. This would include Argentina, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Will this potential expansion result in an even more crowded Arctic?
Not surprisingly, given the current political atmosphere, one order of business which was not addressed at the abbreviated Council meeting was the question of potential new formal observers. This omission marked the second time that Arctic-adjacent state Estonia was left in the waiting room, as the country’s original bid in 2021 was also unsuccessful. Fellow Baltic state Latvia was also seeking to become an observer this year, and Ireland and the Czech Republic had previously expressed interest in joining the list, (the most recent addition to the observer roster was Switzerland in 2017).
As the addition of any new formal observers requires consensus from all eight Council members, another side-effect of the present status of the organisation could be a de facto moratorium on this subject, at least in the short term. The interaction of current observers with the Council under current conditions is also a question.
This outcome notwithstanding, however, it is unlikely that the Baltic region will lose interest in Arctic affairs, given growing ties with the Nordic states which were further strengthened in the wake of Finland’s NATO admission. During the Lennart Meri conference, there were numerous mentions of the Finnish Gulf between Estonia and Finland becoming a ‘NATO lake’, which has significantly changed the security mosaic of the Nordic-Baltic region.
The Arctic Council was expected to resume formal deliberations next month, with new Senior Arctic Officials Chairperson Morten Høglund stating that political level meetings will not be possible for the near future under current circumstances. Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt was also direct in her view that it will be difficult to manoeuvre around politics in reviving the Council, but also noted [in Norwegian] that there were cooperation challenges earlier in the organisation’s history which needed to be overcome. There was also the issue of how the Council’s Working Groups, the mainstays which oversee specific areas of scientific study such as pollution, sustainable development, and local biology, as well as monitoring and emergency preparedness, will operate under the current situation.
As a result of the war, doors between Russia and the rest of the Arctic remain closed, but more doors between Europe and the Arctic have begun to appear, and swing wide open, with much greater regularity.
An Amber Light Ahead: Norway Prepares for the Arctic Council Chair
In the coming weeks, Norway will be assuming the chair of the Arctic Council after a difficult, and unprecedented, year for the group. Since March 2022, the Council has been bifurcated, with Russia, the current chair, operating alone in the wake of the decision by the other seven members to ‘pause’ participation after Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Although some work has been jointly undertaken by the ‘A7’ nations since then, questions have persisted as to how the chair title would be transferred from Russia to Norway this spring. The standard procedure, which would entail holding a Ministerial Meeting in a Russian locale to officially transfer the gavel, was deemed not possible under current geopolitical conditions. Afterwards, how would Norway oversee the Council during its upcoming two-year tenure, and with what level of Russian participation?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did send invitations to the A7 governments to a Council meeting in Salekhard, a Siberian town in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, on 11 May, to formally transfer the chair. However, Anniken Huitfeldt, Foreign Minister of Norway, had confirmed at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø in January that she would not attend any such meeting, nor have any other A7 states agreed to send their representatives to Russia for a handover ceremony.
Thus, a virtual meeting and transfer is currently under negotiation between Norwegian and Russian officials, with the government of Norway confirming that it would assume the role on schedule and as smoothly as possible. Minister Huitfeldt also stressed [in Norwegian] that it was essential for the Arctic Council to maintain operations, given that the alternative was that other organisations would take the lead in regional policymaking should the Council become a cypher.
Official-level government contacts between Moscow and Oslo remain in abeyance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently commented in a policy speech that his country’s relationship with Norway had dropped to ‘a minimum’ [in Russian], which have had negative effects on bilateral cooperation, including in the Arctic, (Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre responded [in Norwegian] to Putin’s comments by saying that Moscow was to blame for current ‘minimal’ state of Norwegian-Russian relations).
Bilateral links have further eroded over the past year in the wake of spying and drone scandals, the suspension of the 2007 visa agreement which had facilitated travel over the Norway-Russia border, and the reduction of activities within the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, a subregional grouping which had been a major point of contact between northern Norway and neighbouring Russian communities.
Even after the handover, however, there will still be the conundrum of where Council deliberations will go from there, especially as the Arctic becomes a growing military concern to both Russia and the West. On 4 April, Finland formally joined NATO as the thirty-first member, doubling the alliance’s borders with Russia, (Finland’s own Russian border is about 1340km in length, and it was previously announced that Helsinki would soon be fortifying that frontier). Meanwhile, Sweden’s own NATO application remains active, but it still faces opposition from alliance member governments Hungary and Türkiye (Turkey) over political and human rights policy differences with Stockholm.
Finland’s successful NATO admission prompted vows from the Russian government that ‘countermeasures’ would be taken, and during the past year the Putin regime has continued to augment its own Arctic military presence. In a foreign policy document [in Russian] released by the Kremlin last month, blame was placed on ‘unfriendly states’ seeking to militarise the Arctic, while Moscow promised to work with non-Arctic governments on regional initiatives.
For example, Arctic cooperation was included in the joint statement [in Chinese] between China’s President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when the former visited Moscow last month, with both leaders calling for the Arctic to continue being ‘a place of peace, stability and constructive cooperation’ and promising further cooperation on economic endeavours including the Northern Sea Route. As well, a February 2023 policy document [in Russian] on the Arctic notably omitted any mention of Russia’s cooperation with the Arctic Council, instead calling for regional cooperation on a state-to-state basis.
The deteriorated diplomatic situation between Russia and the A7 governments was only further underscored by the detainment last month in Yekaterinburg of Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
The degree to which Russian engagement in the Council will take place during Norway’s chair will affect many issues within the far north and likely well outside of it. Climate change and environmental affairs will remain high [in Norwegian] on the organisation’s agenda, as alarms [pdf] continue to sound about tipping points being reached or surpassed in the Polar Regions along with other parts of the world. As the largest Arctic state, as well as a major concern in regards to local pollution, omitting Moscow from Arctic environmental policymaking may serve to slow down joint actions in combatting climate change threats in the far north.
There are also the questions of how Indigenous groups, representing the Permanent Participants in the Council, will be affected by the situation, as well as how the observer organisations and governments will operate. At the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík last October, China’s senior Arctic official, Gao Feng, stated [video] that it would be difficult for his country (which has been a formal observer in the Council since 2013), to participate in the Council should Russia continue to be excluded, a point which he reiterated at the Tokyo Arctic Circle Japan Forum in March this year. The situation also remains hazy for potential new formal observers, including Estonia and Latvia, as these positions are normally designated via unanimous support of the Council’s eight members.
On 23 March, Oslo published its policy document [pdf] detailing its priorities during its 2023-5 Council chairing period. The paper, in keeping with Arctic Council traditions of keeping hard security matters as abbreviated as possible, made only oblique references to the geopolitical situation in the region, citing the ‘difficult and challenging time for international cooperation’ in which the Council is currently operating. Acknowledging the Council’s 2021-2030 Strategic Plan [pdf], originally adopted in Reykjavík two years ago, the Norwegian government outlined four priorities for its chair position over the next two years: climate and the environment, the oceans, the peoples of the north, and sustainable economic development.
These priorities reflect the diverse nature of both environmental and socio-economic challenges the Arctic is now facing. As responses, Oslo has promised initiatives including protecting regional biodiversity, reducing black carbon and methane emissions, promoting improved data sharing, preparing for the green transition in the Arctic, combatting marine pollution, support stronger economic, health and cultural cooperation, advocate gender equality and diversity policies, and organise an Arctic Youth Conference.
Norway’s Council policy paper has illustrated its government’s ‘the show must go on’ approach to its upcoming chairing duties, expressing a determination to make sure that the group does not deviate from its core interests in addressing the considerable environmental and human security travails which, as many policymakers have pressed, cannot be placed on hold until the Arctic’s strategic situation improves.
Oslo has given itself an ambitious, and lengthy, to-do list for its two years as Council chair, and in addition to the logistics of completing these tasks, the Norwegian government will constantly need to observe how and where the changed security situation in the Arctic is spilling over into ongoing efforts to improve livelihoods in the far north.
The Black, the Blue and the Green: Norway’s Energy Dilemmas
Less than two years ago, speculation was swirling around the possibility of a dramatic shift in Norwegian energy policy, as the fossil fuel-rich nation appeared poised to downgrade its oil and gas development projects in favour of concentrating on renewable energy alternatives. The runup to the country’s parliamentary elections in September 2021 was dominated by questions about what would happen should the then-opposition Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) be required to share power with the Norwegian Green Party (Miljøpartiet De Grønne) and the Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti). Such a coalition would likely have resulted in an attempt to reconfigure the Norwegian economy more definitively away from fossil fuels, especially since the Greens had called for an immediate halt to further oil exploration, and the termination of petroleum development in the country by 2035.
The 2021 election was held during a period of growing evidence of climate change in the Arctic as well as a report [pdf] published earlier that year by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which included warnings about the precarious state of Arctic sea ice and warming temperatures in the far north. Over the past few years, Oslo had been chided by both domestic and international actors for not doing enough to address climate change pressures, including in the Arctic, and for advocating green policies while maintaining a robust oil and gas industry.
However, after the parliamentary vote, neither the Greens, which fell short of the expected number of seats, nor the Socialist Left were invited into the new Labour-led coalition. Instead, the Labour government of Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre joined with the moderate Centre Party (Senterpartiet) to form a minority government in parliament, (unlike in other parliamentary systems, minority governments in Norway are commonplace, as well as traditionally stable).
Discussion of a short-term move away from oil and gas in Norway initially became more muted after the new government took office, and the spike in post-pandemic oil prices further quieted any discussion of a ‘green wave’ in Norwegian energy policy. Despite ongoing unease in some parts of the country over the incompatibility of Norwegian energy policies with global climate change commitments, the Støre government announced plans in March of last year to release new drilling licenses in Arctic waters, and Oslo declined to support a call by the European Union in late 2021 to implement a moratorium on Arctic fossil fuel extraction.
The February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the scramble by many European economies to implement trade sanctions and to sever fossil fuel trade with the Vladimir Putin regime, changed the game again. As a result, Russia has been diverting much of its Arctic oil trade since last year to both China and India, at reduced prices. (China has also been a major buyer of Russian liquified natural gas, or LNG, as European markets were cut off). In September 2022, the abrupt shutdown, widely blamed on sabotage, of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines connecting Germany and Russia in the Baltic Sea further raised the alarm about the dangers of European dependence upon Russian supplies.
Europe’s search for alternative energy suppliers served to push Norway further into the region’s energy spotlight. Oslo has been called upon to expand both its oil and gas production for sale to European markets, which has not only raised new questions about environmental impacts but has also at times complicated relations between Norway and European energy purchasers.
It was announced this month that Norway’s oil and gas profits reached record levels during 2022, with a recent report noting the country’s state energy concern, Equinor, made US$24.3 billion just in the period between July and September last year. Norway’s Government Pension Fund- Global (Statens pensjonsfond Utland), based on the country’s fossil fuel trade, now stands at about 12.88 trillion NoK (US$1.28 trillion).
Since last year, the Støre government has been attempting to deflect criticisms that Norway has been profiting unfairly from the energy crunch elsewhere in Europe. Debates about how to use these additional funds for the benefit of Ukraine, and Europe as a whole, have persisted, and the announcement last October by the Støre administration that Norway would be cutting its aid budget in 2023 from one percent of annual national income to 0.75% did little to silence criticism. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was especially direct on the subject in May last year, when he called upon the Norwegian government to ‘share excess profits’ made through its fossil fuel sales. Oslo has also declined to implement a pricing cap on exported Norwegian natural gas, but did agree to levying a windfall tax on its oil and gas firms.
However, pressures on natural gas prices eased somewhat at the beginning of 2023 in both North America and Europe, due to conservation efforts, a collective desire to prevent Russia from weaponising fossil fuel prices against the West, and a so-far warmer than expected winter in many parts of the northern hemisphere.
The potential contradictions between demands for Norwegian oil and gas and the country’s commitment to protect the Arctic environment have also been illuminated via an announcement last month that Equinor would invest NoK 13.2 billion (US$1.3 billion) in upgrading LNG facilities in the far northern town of Hammerfest to not only boost production but also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions via upgrades to the facilities’ electrical systems.
As well, despite ongoing differences over Norwegian fossil fuel policies, the Støre government has nonetheless sought to burnish its environmental credentials in other ways, especially as Oslo has pledged ‘net zero’ carbon emissions policies by 2050. Wind power has become a subject of greater interest, and Norway continues to situate itself as a leader in the sale of electric vehicles (EVs).
This month, it was announced via a joint statement that Norway would be cooperating with Germany to develop hydrogen gas power infrastructure by 2030. This construction would facilitate the transfer of ‘blue hydrogen’, with an eye to eventually shifting to ‘green hydrogen’ capabilities between the two states. Blue hydrogen refers to hydrogen created by the burning of natural gas and using carbon capture and storage. Green hydrogen, which at present is considered too costly to develop on a grand scale, is created via consumption of renewable energy. Hydrogen (H2) has long been considered a promising, and more environmentally friendly, (as its waste product is water vapour), potential successor to fossil fuels.
Under the agreement, Equinor and German energy firm RWE would build hydrogen-ready power plants as well as a pipeline connecting the two countries. If successful, the enterprise would serve to further diversify European energy supplies while further shielding the region from Russian energy pressures. However, there were initial concerns about cost, as the pipeline alone was reported as having a provisional price tag of NoK 32 billion (US$3.2 billion), as well as over the timetable as to when the project could successfully shift from blue to green hydrogen development, as Germany is especially interested in making that transition as soon as possible.
In many ways, Norway is still facing the same energy dilemma it had before the start of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, namely how best to address geopolitical and economic needs on one hand while honouring its environmental commitments on the other. Climate change pressures continue to be observed in the Arctic this winter, but these concerns are now more commonly overshadowed by European insecurities, including access to energy, fostered by Moscow’s belligerence.
Happy Holidays from Over the Circle!
by the OtC Staff
On behalf of the editors, writers and contributors to Over the Circle, (and also Móri!), we wish everyone a very Happy Holidays, and a peaceful, safe and prosperous 2023!
As the far north continues to grow in local and global importance, OtC looks forward to continuing our reporting on the Arctic in all of its different dimensions.
Arctic Circle 2022: The Outside World Keeps Walking In
This year’s Arctic Circle Assembly was a near-return to normal operations following previous postponements and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the event could hardly be called ‘business-as-usual’, in the penumbra of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its global effects, including in the far north. Russian participation in the conference this year was almost non-existent, while military security concerns in the Arctic were a common theme amongst many panels as the overall shape of Arctic security continues to be redefined.
During a speech by Admiral Robert Bauer, Chair of NATO’s Military Committee, in one of the final plenaries of the event, the Ukraine conflict was directly connected to the Arctic, especially as Finland and Sweden were preparing to join the alliance. ‘And soon,’ the Admiral concluded [video], ‘with seven out of eight Arctic states being part of this great alliance, we will do everything we can to make sure the Arctic remains free and open’. In fact, the current geostrategic situation in the far north is now at high risk of going in the opposite direction.
Two inconvenient truths about the current political state of the Arctic which were reflected in the conference this year. First, any vestiges of ‘exceptionalism’ in the region, meaning the Arctic could be effectively separated from outside security concerns, had entirely vanished. Second, the definition of ‘Arctic security’ continues to become more multifaceted in light of the Ukraine conflict, with Russian and NATO interests resulting in more direct policy conflicts in northerly latitudes.
The hardening of security interests in the Arctic had been reflected earlier this month in Washington’s regional policy paper, ‘National Strategy for the Arctic Region’ [pdf], which sought to rebalance American Arctic policies following the aggressively one-dimensional approach to the region pursued by President Joe Biden’s immediate predecessor.
The strategy consisted of four pillars in defining US Arctic diplomacy, namely security, (protection of the United States and its allies in the Arctic), addressing climate change (with extensive participation from Alaska in developing strategies for mitigation and resilience), sustainable development, (including regional infrastructure and services), and international cooperation and governance, (working with the Arctic Council and ‘Arctic Allies’ to maintain regional regimes). In August this year, the Biden administration also confirmed its interest in appointing an Arctic Ambassador-at-Large. These policy shifts, including the four pillars and how they may fit into larger questions of Arctic cooperation and strategies, were also discussed at length during the Arctic Circle.
One common theme expressed by the panels was that while the Arctic Council is still officially ‘on pause’, work by the membership, minus Russia, was continuing. Yet it remains to be seen whether critical work on addressing the main security challenge in the far north, namely climate change, could effectively continue under current circumstances. Moreover, there was much side discussion about the future of Arctic governance should the divide between the ‘Russian’ and ‘Western’ Arctics drift towards permanence.
Although Russia’s attack on Ukraine did cast a shadow on the Arctic Circle’s deliberations, several other themes were front and centre at the event, including Indigenous concerns. In her first speech to the assembly, Mary Simon, Governor-General of Canada, from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Québec, and the first Indigenous person to hold that office, discussed [video] the challenges of creating ties amongst Arctic communities and the effects of warming conditions in the north. As well, she spoke about the ongoing campaign by Arctic peoples to ‘advocate for the space and autonomy they need to claim and revitalise culture, language, and knowledge systems’, including in the Canadian North.
Greenland’s Prime Minister, Múte B. Egede, struck a similar tone, as he spoke about ongoing Greenlandic interests in greater international visibility, but that also any dialogue about Greenland must be on Greenlandic terms: ‘nothing about us, without us’ [video]. This stance reflected the fact that Greenland continues to be courted by international actors, especially as interest in the island’s rare earths continues, and that Nuuk remains committed to expanding its foreign policy footprint as it moves towards potential independence from the Kingdom of Denmark.
Another question about the near-future of the Arctic which generated attention at the conference concerned the ever-complicated relationship between Arctic governments and the growing list of non-Arctic states and organisations seeking a more robust participation in far northern policymaking. The Arctic Circle had frequently served as a showcase for actual and potential observer countries to showcase their regional interests, and on occasion release new policy documents and strategies. This year was no exception, but with the Arctic Council still in abeyance, questions about of the role of observers, (and whether there were any means of appointing new ones to the Council next year), were thrown into much sharper relief.
Amongst the current observer governments in the Council, China by far continues to receive the most global attention due to its size, economic weight, and ongoing debates over how the country’s interests in the Arctic are evolving in light of vastly more difficult strategic conditions in the region compared with nearly five years ago when Beijing published its own White Paper on governmental Arctic policy.
Participation by Chinese officials and specialists was more visible at the conference this year, although some presentations were virtual in light of ongoing travel restrictions related to Beijing’s ‘zero-Covid’ policies. The PRC Foreign Ministry’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, Gao Feng, spoke [video] in person about his country’s ongoing interests in the far north, but his speech received additional attention as he deferred the question of whether China would continue to engage the Arctic Council if Moscow remained excluded from its deliberations. He also gave a candid response [video] to a question about whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had any role in the Arctic. The response was ‘in theory, yes’, given that China was also a member of the United Nations Security Council, but he also stressed that there were no PLA forces currently in the Arctic, rumours notwithstanding.
After Admiral Bauer completed his speech, he was challenged [video] in the question period by Chinese Ambassador to Iceland He Rulong, who took exception to the NATO official’s remarks on how China along with Russia had become anathemas to the ‘rules-based international order’ in the Arctic. The room became even more animated as the Admiral then directly asked the Ambassador to explain why Beijing had yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only was the exchange an example of competing narratives, but it also illustrated another inconvenient truth: that worsened relations between America and China were spilling over into matters of Arctic governance, whether the Arctic itself wished it or not.
In a way, the arrival of Sino-American competition into the Arctic echoes similar concerns raised earlier this year in the Pacific Islands, namely that great power politics may soon overshadow environmental security threats seen as far more pressing to local communities.
Several other non-Arctic states were also visible during the assembly’s events, including science panels organised by specialists in Estonia and Ireland, two states which are currently seeking formal observer status in the Council. Estonian president Alar Karis was also a keynote speaker [video] at the event, reflecting on the indistinct lines between Arctic and ‘Arctic-adjacent’ states. The president, noting that Estonia’s status as the ‘northernmost capital below the Arctic Circle’ spoke about three key factors of the region which are also relevant to Estonian interests: human security and the environment in the wake of climate change, the specific contributions which Estonia can make to the Arctic, (including the country’s long history of polar research, specially in environmental studies including in Svalbard, and approaches to sustainable development), and the effects of ‘hard security’ and the war in Ukraine on the far north.
Representatives from Japan were also involved in discussions about scientific diplomacy in the Arctic, and during the assembly it was formally announced [video] that the Arctic Circle Forum in Tokyo would take place in March of next year, (another forum, to be held in Abu Dhabi on the ‘Third Pole’ and Himalayan geographical studies in relation to the Arctic, is also in preparation, and a forum in Berlin was also confirmed for 2025). Representatives from India also used the assembly as a stage to introduce their own recently published Arctic policy paper [pdf].
Singapore, which has often been an active participant in Arctic Track II events despite its decidedly non-polar geography, was discussed [video] during the opening plenaries by the country’s Senior Minister of State – Ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Development, Sim Ann. She explained her country’s expanding Arctic interests as being defined byconcerns over Arctic climate change and the effects of sea level rise on the low-lying island nation, as well as the potential for scientific and technological cooperation between Singapore and Arctic states. In taking questions [video], the Senior Minister added that Singapore’s role as an observer remained crucial despite the pause, given continuing climate change threats, and expressed hopes that dialogue on environmental challenges could be maintained and that a balance could be struck between the global and local aspects of the region.
As is now tradition at the assembly, awards were presented near the conclusion of the event, with this year’s Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award being given [video] to Professor Hanne H. Christiansen and Associate Professor Marius Jonassen of the Svalbard-based PermaMeteoCommunity project which has sought to build an advanced system to monitor climate chance and permafrost conditions in the far north. The Arctic Circle Prize, which had previously been awarded to former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (2016) and former US Secretary of State John Kerry (2019), was presented this year to representatives of the German Alfred Wegener Institute for their launch of the MOSAiC Expedition in the Arctic by the research vessel RV Polarstern during 2019-20.
This year’s assembly was estimated to have welcomed over two thousand participants, reflecting ongoing regional and international interest in the Arctic. Discussion about the far north, however, continues to enter new and unexpected territories as external political and security interests attempt to side-door their way into the region. To reverse an often-quoted phrase at the event, what happens outside of the Arctic no longer stays outside of the Arctic.
[Addendum 5 November 2022 – Additional links to speeches at the Arctic Circle have been added.]