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.
In the past few months, the topic of Arctic security has become more visible in the wake of American debates about increased Russian and Chinese economic and strategic activities in the circumpolar north. After a difficult Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council this month in Rovaniemi, splits in the organisation over the challenge of climate change and the prospect of the militarisation of the Arctic have been pushed to the forefront of regional discourse. Yet where does the region go from here? What are are the challenges the Arctic will now face not only in terms of geopolitics but also on the level of communities and individuals?
A new podcast, as part of the Opinion Peace series published by the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway, in Tromsø, examines these questions. The podcast was hosted by Benjamin Schaller (Ph.D. Candidate and Research Fellow at CPS). The discussants were Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv (Professor, Centre for Peace Studies), Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen (Professor and Barents Chair in Politics at the Department of Social Sciences) and Marc Lanteigne (Associate Professor in Political Science, and editor of OtC) who all spoke about different approaches to Arctic security as well the potential for hardening political stances within the Arctic Council.
Last week’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, which marked the end of Finland’s tenure as chair of the organisation, will likely be remembered for the words and actions by the US delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the aftermath of his controversial speech, and his refusal to support language mentioning climate change in the meeting’s documentation, resulting in the Ministerial concluding without a formal declaration for the first time in its history, there is now the question of whether the United States would be pursuing a policy of isolationism within the Council.
As part of his northern European tour, Mr Pompeo was also expected to travel to Nuuk in order to announce new American diplomatic initiatives there, but an eleventh hour announcement indicated the trip was postponed indefinitely, and the secretary instead returned to Washington. It was however announced by Washington that the State Department did intend to re-establish a ‘presence’ in Greenland. The US had opened a consulate in Nuuk (then Godthåb) in May 1940 when Denmark fell under Nazi German occupation. However, the consulate was shuttered in 1953, after Greenland’s status as a Danish colony was removed with the island becoming a constituency within the Kingdom of Denmark along with the Faroe Islands. Greenland opened a representative office in Washington in September 2014 as part of the island’s widening foreign policy interests.
With the closing of the Ministerial, the chair of the Arctic Council has passed to Iceland, which will oversee the organisation under the leadership of Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, until 2021. At the conclusion of the Rovaniemi meetings, the government of Iceland released its first policy paper outlining its upcoming work with the Council, as well as the main theme of Iceland’s tenure as Council chair, namely regional sustainable development. This concept would be joined by four regional priorities, namely understanding and protecting the marine environment, including in the wake of dangers from plastic pollution, addressing regional climate change and seeking ‘green solutions’, promoting the wellbeing of the four million citizens living in the Arctic, and strengthening cooperation within the Arctic Council.
Related to this plan, Iceland confirmed its support for the closer alignment of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council (AEC) to promote ‘responsible economic development’. On 6 May, the AEC, created five years ago to facilitate business links with the Arctic, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arctic Council to further that cooperation.
In his speech at the Ministerial, Mr Þórðarson pointed to the need to continue to develop the Arctic while acknowledging the serious challenges posed by climate change and ice erosion, also noting that while the 2015 Paris climate agreement was a positive step, the deal would not be enough to curtail global warming for many future decades. He also added that the Arctic Council mandate did not include military security, and instead focused on creating a forum for ‘dialogue and peaceful cooperation’ in the region.
This year saw no new non-Arctic governments added to the list of Council observers, after Switzerland was the lone candidate added in 2017, but one intergovernmental organisation, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), was granted observer status this year. The IMO was created in 1948 as a specialised agency of the United Nations, and is responsible for the regulation of maritime safety and legal affairs. The IMO is also responsible for the development of the Polar Code, regulating safe and responsible civilian maritime traffic in the waters of the Arctic and off Antarctica, which came into effect in January 2017.
Meanwhile, the political fallout from the Pompeo speech has led other Arctic actors to treat the situation as metaphorical road damage to be bypassed. Other members of the Council confirmed that they would be pressing on with climate change policies in the Arctic, and Iceland’s opening policy statements further confirm that position. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), one of the permanent participants in the Arctic Council, strongly criticised the United States for blocking the release of a formal declaration from the ministerial which included the challenges of climate change, accusing the US of a lack of leadership in the region and of ‘moral failure’. However, the US State Department attempted to put a more positive spin on the meeting, with one representative praising a ‘very, very, positive outcome’ at the event despite, to phrase it mildly, contrasting views from the other Arctic Council principals.
As well, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected Mr Pompeo’s assertion that Canadian claims to the Northwest Passage as internal waters were ‘illegitimate’, stating that ‘Canada is very clear about the Northwest Passage being Canadian,’ based on both history and geography. However, the matter appears to be far from resolved, given plans in Washington for the US Navy to conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Northwest Passage, although it was unclear what vessel could be used for that operation given the few ice-capable vessels the United States currently owns. Should that take place, it would be seen as a direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty and an assertion of a US right of passage.
As an Arctic policy specialist recently argued, for the US to rush into a FONOP in the polar regions would be ‘unwise’, given the still difficult-to-predict ice and weather patterns in the region, coupled with the poor condition of the United States’ few functioning icebreakers, as well as the risk of further irritating US-Canada relations. Ties between Ottawa and Washington have already cooled considerably since US President Donald Trump came to power, including over economic issues such as the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the sometimes-brittle relationship between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
China, which was singled out in Mr Pompeo’s remarks for challenging the Arctic regional order and seeking to develop a greater role in regional decision-making, was dismissive of US criticism, with a representative of the Chinese foreign ministry pointing to Beijing’s ongoing support of the Paris agreement, (to which the US is no longer adhering), and interest in cooperating with Arctic actors to further research climate change and its effects. US views that China should have a limited presence in the region were further challenged this week with the opening of the Arctic Circle Forum in Shanghai, the first such event to be held in China, and a showcase for the country’s expanding Arctic agenda. Among the topics of the forum were educational cooperation, environmental studies, indigenous communities, tourism and the development of an ‘Ice Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路).
The Shanghai gathering also provided a useful venue for Arctic governments to confirm their interest in better engaging China in the Arctic and in expressing disagreement with the US policies expressed at the ministerial. Andrew Leslie, a member of the Canadian parliament representing the governing Liberal Party, stated in remarks during the forum that despite a cooling of Sino-Canadian relations since December of last year due to the Meng Wanzhou affair, Ottawa was hopeful the Arctic could open up new paths to bilateral cooperation.
During the meetings, Mr Wang Hong of the Ministry of Natural Resources – State Oceanic Administration section, called for joint scientific expeditions to the North Pole as well as combined efforts to further strengthen [In Chinese] the Ice Silk Road as a ‘blue partnership’ (lanse huoban guanxi 蓝色伙伴关系) with other Arctic states for the benefit of the region as a whole. As well, a director with China Shipping and Sinopec Suppliers Co., Mr Cai Meijian, recommended the creation of an ‘Arctic Integrated Governance Law’ which would further augment Arctic Ocean safety and security. These statements add further weight to the idea of China becoming more comfortable with the project of building adjacent, or potentially even alternative regimes in the Arctic, a point which was alluded to back in 2015 when then-Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Ming recommended the creation of a ‘multi-tiered Arctic cooperation framework for win-win results’ in the region.
This past week has been a heady one for Arctic affairs, but one initial conclusion which can be drawn is that there have been significant shifts appearing in the region, both in terms of policy priorities and distribution of power. Despite apparent American attempts to move these processes backward, Arctic politics are changing, whether Washington is ready or not.
The Arctic Council has traditionally sought to discourage dialogues relating to hard security affairs in its meetings, instead placing stronger emphasis on issues encompassing regional economic development, indigenous affairs, and the growing physical and socio-anthropological effects of regional climate change, including the ongoing melting of the Arctic ice cap. The Council’s 1996 founding document incorporated that preference to keep military-strategic issues off the table, and even in the wake of cooled relations between Russia and other Council members following the 2014 Ukraine crises, it was still informally understood that military matters were to be ‘checked at the door’ of Council gatherings.
Such a point of order appeared to be completely lost on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, as he gave a blustery and at times bombastic speech at the opening of this year’s Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland. While studiously avoiding the subject of climate change in the Arctic, he instead sought to promote a different narrative regarding the challenges of the region, focusing critically on Moscow’s Arctic policies, as well as its actions in Ukraine, and seeking to elevate China alongside Russia as the second great threat to Arctic regional affairs.
Mr Pompeo’s presentation, which one commentator referred to as ‘a thunderstorm’ [In Norwegian] was extremely light on descriptions of upcoming US Arctic policies, and instead emphasised the economic potential of the region, including the boast that, ‘America is the world’s leader in caring for the environment,’. This despite the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 and repeated claims by the US government that climate change is a hoax. Mr Pompeo’s speech strongly indicates American policy in the Arctic under the Donald Trump government is becoming more one-dimensional and unilateral in comparison with its predecessor.
After offering a brief description of American history in the Arctic, including the nineteenth century purchase of what was then the Alaskan Territory from Russia, Mr Pompeo wasted little time in outlining what he saw were looming security challenges to the Arctic, starting surprisingly with China. Beijing was singled out in the remarks as being a formal observer in the Arctic Council, (a position it has held since 2013, and at present twelve other governments have identical status). Pompeo called into question China’s interests in respecting the sovereignty of the region, despite China having asserted just that in policy speeches and in its 2018 Arctic White Paper.
Then, Mr Pompeo, taking issue with China describing itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’, stressed that ‘There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.’ In addition to the harsh tone of the language used here, his words appeared to call into question whether other non-Arctic states, including in Asia and Europe, would be similarly marginalised in key areas of Arctic decision-making.
Moreover, these specific comments appeared to ignore the fact that although the Arctic Council is the most prominent decision-making body in the region, it is far from the only outlet Beijing has used to develop a political and economic presence in the Arctic, including bilateral economic agreements, (for example, joint investments in Russian fossil fuel development enterprises, a free trade agreement with Iceland and one being negotiated with Norway), and scientific diplomacy. Shanghai will be hosting the next breakout forum of the Arctic Circle conference later this week, an event expected to showcase the Chinese government’s widening regional interests. While there may be no de jure third category of states in the Arctic, de facto is an entirely different story.
Advocating the elimination of China from Arctic discourses is unlikely to receive much of a hearing from other corners of the Council, especially since the decision to admit China as an observer in that organisation, while at times controversial went ahead partially out of concern that China would simply seek another route into the region if it was shut out of the Council’s observer roster.
As Valur Ingimundarson wrote in a 2014 paper [paywall] on the Kiruna Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, which concluded with the decision to admit China, (along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea), as formal observers, China’s economic and political weight in the region had grown to the point where shutting it out would simply prompt Beijing to go around the Council in developing its regional interests. While China has expressed satisfaction with its current role in the Arctic Council, it remains wary of what has been called the ‘blueberry pie problem’, meaning the potential for the Arctic to be divided up amongst the eight Arctic states, with no role for any other actor. Mr Pompeo’s remarks will do nothing to allay those concerns.
Moreover, Mr Pompeo’s suggestion that while Chinese political discourse in the Arctic was not acceptable, ‘That’s not to say Chinese investment is unwelcome- indeed, quite the opposite. The United States and Arctic nations welcome transparent Chinese investments that reflect economic interest and national security ambitions,’. The underlying meaning appeared to be that China should just leave its money on the table, say nothing, and walk out.
On China, Mr Pompeo also sought to draw connections between Beijing’s interests in adding the Arctic Ocean to its Belt and Road initiative, raising the spectre of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and citing the extreme case of Sri Lanka as a warning sign, (despite recent data published by the New York-based think tank Rhodium Group suggesting that the ‘debt trap’ narrative may be considerably embellished). The South China Sea was also mentioned by Mr Pompeo as an illustration of China’s revisionist policies in the Arctic Ocean, ignoring the fact the South China Sea dispute is based on conflicting legal and sovereignty claims which are completely absent in the Arctic. China claims no maritime or land space in the Arctic, and noted in its Arctic White Paper that it had no interest in doing so.
Mr Gao Feng, China’s Arctic Ambassador, who attended the speech, was critical of Mr Pompeo’s remarks, stating that they were indicative of ‘a new bad era’, along with the US singling out Russia for public rebuke. He also commented that the speech reflected the idea of ‘a competition of powers. Okay, competition? Let’s see… who can get more friends?’. The following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Shan Guang suggested [In Chinese] that Mr Pompeo was mis-categorising Chinese policies in the Arctic and speaking against the need for peaceful regional cooperation, and ‘confounding black and white’ (wanquan shi diandao heibai 完全是颠倒黑白) on the issue. Mr Shan added that Beijing was seeking engagement in the region based in an ‘open, cooperative and “win-win” (gongying 共赢) manner’.
The recent military activity by Russia in its Arctic regions was also criticised in the speech as evidence of a growing aggressive stance, seemingly dismissing the point that many of these endeavours, including re-opening previous abandoned installations in the Arctic, have reflected the increasing importance of the Russian Arctic to Moscow’s economic interests, and the anticipation of greater levels of maritime sea traffic in the region’s northern sea route necessitating increased monitoring. Mr Pompeo focused on the belief that ‘Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots,’ while minimising potential Russian military activities outside of its Arctic borders, including submarine activity, (the largest nuclear submarine built to date, the Russian vessel Belgorod / Белгород was launched last month at the Arctic port of Severodvinsk / Северодвинск), as well as air incursions.
In contesting recently-outlined Russian plans to heavily regulate passage through the NSR, Mr Pompeo also took an opportunity for a backhanded swipe at Canada for its policies towards the Northwest Passage (NWP), suggesting Canadian claims that the NWP is considered Canadian waters was ‘illegitimate’, upending an informal ‘agree to disagree’ stance on the matter between Ottawa and Washington, (with the latter claiming that the NWP is actually international waters), as well as a 1988 bilateral agreement on Arctic cooperation.
Also according to the speech, China was accused of developing infrastructure in the Northwest Territories, an assertion that was quickly called out by experts who noted that no such plans exist. The only active Chinese investment in the Canadian Arctic is a lithium mine in the Abitibi Region of Québec, which had been financed by the Jilin Jien Nickel Industry company, and subsequently by the Ningde-based battery-making firm Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL).
On 7 May, the meetings concluded, for the first time without a formal joint declaration, with the eight government participants instead releasing an abbreviated Ministerial Statement [pdf], using broad diplomatic language and omitting mention of climate change, reflecting the US ‘denial’ stance on the subject. The differences of viewpoint regarding the inclusion of climate change concerns in the final documentation were noted in a speech [pdf] by the Chair of the gathering, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who stated ‘A majority of us noted with concern the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and its findings,’.
The Trump government is expected to release a new Arctic defence strategy by the beginning of June this year, and based on recent events, Washington will likely continue to press the idea of Arctic security being threatened by great power competition as opposed to economic and environmental challenges. As Mr Pompeo stated in his opening speech, ‘we must not allow this forum to fall victim to subversion- from Arctic or non-Arctic states,’.
However, the results of this year’s Ministerial meetings, which will likely be known for the sharp and antagonistic policy turns by the United States delegation during the event, may result in a different set of negative circumstances for the Arctic Council and for Arctic diplomacy as a whole.
[Many thanks to Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this article.]