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.
The Government of Denmark announced this week that it was going to enter into discussions with Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat about potential Danish financial support for the expansion and refurbishment of three Greenlandic airports, a decision which couldshut down a bid by a Chinese firm for that contract. The declaration, confirmed by the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Greenland, may be a further indication of Copenhagen’s growing unease about expanded Chinese economic interests in Greenland as Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ (一带一路), or BRI, trade routes begin to expand further into the Arctic.
A statement[In Danish] released by the Danish Prime Minister’s Office confirmed Copenhagen’s interest in negotiations regarding Denmark potentially underwriting the development of the airports in the capital of Nuuk as well as Ilulissat and Qaqortoq. At present, Kangerlussuaq and Narsarsuaq are the only (civilian) airports [In Danish] capable of handling large aircraft. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark pledged his support for improving Greenlandic infrastructure in order to improve the island’s economic competitiveness and fledgling tourism industry.
High on the priority list for the new coalition was the improvement and diversification of the island’s economy, which at present remains heavily dominated by the fishing industry. Siumut has been open to the prospect of increased foreign investment in Greenland, including potentially by Chinese interests, and has suggested [In Danish] that a Greenland representative office should open in Beijing.
When it was announced that a contract to develop the airports would be open for bidding in cooperation with the Greenlandic state-owned firm Kalaallit Airports, one of the main contenders was a Chinese firm, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which was shortlisted along with five other firms, with a final decision originally scheduled to be announced later this year. However, the Danish announcement may place the Chinese bid in doubt, especially if some sort of cost-sharing deal can be achieved over the next few months.
Danish officials had previously expressed concerns about the Chinese company’s bid due to reservations about Greenland’s economic sovereignty, especially at a time whenthe debate about the eventual independence of Greenland from the Danish Kingdom continues tocirculate. Siumut has been open to the possibility of eventual independence, while Nunatta Qitornai is strongly pro-independence, as is PN, which at one point suggested independence from Greenland could be achieved as early as 2021. Atassut has been traditionally supportive of greater Greenlandic autonomy from Denmark, but with conditions short of complete independence. After the election, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, a member of NQ and Greenland’s new Minister of Independence, recently called for a jump-start [In Norwegian] of debates about constitutional reform in preparation for potential independence.
Any move towards independence would require Greenland to seek out deepened trade agreements to offset the annual stipend from Copenhagen, and China has been very visible in current and potential development projects on the island. In addition to the airports bid, Chinese firms are also involved in two potential mining projects [paywall] in Greenland, and there was previous interest expressed by Beijing in a potential scientific base [In Danish] there. It was also revealed last year that Hong Kong company General Nice had sought to purchase abandoned US-built military facilities at Grønnedal, but was interdicted by the Danish government due to security concerns and worries about the reaction from Washington, which operates an active air force base at Thule in the northern part of the island.
As detailed in China’s first Arctic White Paper which was released in January of this year, over the past year, China has made greater expressions of interest in adding the Arctic to its expanded network of trade routes as part of the BRI. For example, on the sidelines of this past week’s leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Qingdao, an agreement worth approximately US$10.1 billion was completed between Russia’s Vnesheconombank and the China Development Bank for joint investment initiatives, potentially as many as seventy projects, in the Russian Far East (RFE), including along the Russian Northern Sea Route (NSR). Exactly how far the Arctic tier of the BRI will extend towards the Nordic region including Greenland is not clear, but as a presentation [video] at the recently concluded Arctic Circle conference in Tórshavn detailed, China retains a strong interest in developing various economic partnerships with Nuuk.
In May of this year, the Danish leader stated publically that he was not in favour [In Danish] of a Chinese firm winning the airports contract, and noted that a decision of this magnitude had significant effects on Greenlandic foreign policy. Under the 2009 self-rule [pdf] agreement between Copenhagen and Nuuk, the Danish government retains oversight of Greenland’s international affairs.
The Danish-Greenlandic discussions this week did not mention specific Danish financial contributions to the airports project, which was expected to cost approximately 3.5 billion DKK (US$550 million). However, the two governments agreed [In Norwegian] to reach a decision by the autumn session of the Greenlandic parliament on a possible partnership, as well as to discuss other initiatives designed to improve overall Danish investment in Greenland. Both the independence factor and the possibility of deepened Chinese investment have appeared to be guiding the calls in Copenhagen for enhanced economic engagement with Nuuk.
Even if the Chinese company ultimately does not succeed in winning the bid, it is unlikely this issue will be last word on the subject of the delicate balancing act which has been taking shape between Denmark, which wishes to maintain its leading role in Greenland’s economic future, and China, a rising power with growing interest in Arctic diplomacy and investment.
[Many thanks to Mingming Shi, Mikkel Møller Schøler and Lau Øfjord Blaxekjær for their assistance with the researching of this post.]
As the 2018 World Cup in Russia begins this week, a lot of attention has been paid to one of the two newcomers to the global football championship, namely Iceland, (the other country making its debut is Panama). Yet, the Icelandic team has already made history by being the smallest country by population to enter the World Cup finals, and has quickly redefined the word ‘underdog’ in many ways.
The team faces an uphill battle to make it to the knockout round, given that its partners in Group D are Croatia, Nigeria, and two-time Cup winner Argentina. Iceland was able to enter the finals after defeating Kosovo in a qualifying match last October, and the team had previously distinguished itself by holding its own again much more established squadrons. Iceland will play its first match on Saturday local time, and there will be much anticipation about how well the Icelandic team fares, especially given its newfound reputation as both a ‘dark horse’ and an occasional giant killer.
The latter moniker was a result of a shock defeatof the English team, 2-1, in the Euro Cup in June 2016, a victory which brought the Icelandic team, and the country’s football culture, international attention for the first time, (and likely added yet another boost to the country’s already burgeoning tourism industry). Iceland fans’ signature ‘Viking clap’ [video] became an institution all its own, and the team itself also became known for its humility, including by being coached by Heimir Hallgrímsson, a part-time dentist.
In addition to the host country, the Arctic is also represented by Denmark (Group C) and Sweden (Group F). This week, it was also announcedthat the World Cup 2026 would be co-hosted by two other Arctic states, Canada and the United States, along with Mexico. This North American team-up may face difficulties in the early planning stages however, given the ongoing brittle relations between the US and Mexico, and the recent chill over American relations with Canada in light of harsh criticism President Donald Trump levelled against Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Canadian trade practices after the G7 Summit in Québec this month.
The Icelandic team has been called a ‘sleeper’ entry into the World Cup, as well as a fan favourite, and even made the lead story in this week’s edition of Timemagazine as the squad which ‘crashed the party’ and demonstrated that ‘Iceland stands for more than Instagram-ready glaciers and volcanoes, and a banking collapse,’. Despite the long odds the team faces, (estimated at 200 to one to actually win the Cup), the group’s breakout goal scorer, Eiður Guðjohnsen, said that his team was ‘in a good place’ for the start of the event. Regardless of the outcome of the first matches, Iceland has already secured its place in football history.
To put it mildly, this month has seen a flurry of high-level government meetings covering a variety of international affairs. From the rancorous G-7 meeting, (or possibly ‘G6+1’, given the ostracism of US President Donald Trump at the gathering due to American tariffs and the country’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement), in Charlevoix, Québec, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit held in Qingdao which included Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, diplomats have been logging many miles of late. This, while not even taking into account the upcoming watershed summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore next week.
Overshadowed by all of these events has been the third annual Northeast Asian trilateral dialogue on the Arctic, which was held in Shanghai [In Chinese] this week. Although the announcements following the meeting were modest, the gathering nonetheless represented a distinct example of non-Arctic states seeking to coordinate their engagement of the region, as well as a means for three states, China, Japan and South Korea, to engage in robust scientific diplomacy despite the numerous political and security differences facing the trio. The first trilateral meeting on the Arctic took place in Seoul in April 2016, in the wake of a leadership summit in November 2015 between the three governments, which aimed to restore political relations previously experiencing an especially difficult period. The statement released after the 2015 meeting included the announcement that ‘acknowledging the global importance of Arctic issues, we will launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic’.
The three Asian states, along with India, Italy and Singapore, entered the Arctic Council as formal observers in May 2013, and all three expressed interest in the economic opportunities appearing in the Arctic, especially the possibilities of expanded Arctic shipping between Asia and Europe. The initial Seoul meeting, to become an annual event, laid the foundation for mutual cooperation in developing Arctic research and scientific policies, while promoting the region as a zone of peace and sustainable development. The follow-up gathering in Tokyo in June 2017 produced a more formal joint statement [pdf], which outlined mutual goals in Arctic cooperation, including strengthened cooperation within the Arctic Council and its Working Groups, as well as other international organisations relevant to far northern affairs. There was also a call for enhanced scientific cooperation among experts from the three states, including in Arctic environmental affairs.
Although these two Arctic meetings stressed scientific cooperation in the Arctic, there was also a political undercurrent to the overall initiative regarding the roles the three Asian states should play in the region. Although none of the three states have Arctic frontiers, they all have expressed interest in assuming greater roles in current and future Arctic affairs and being accepted by the ‘Arctic Eight’ governments as regional players. South Korea released its first Arctic policy paper [pdf], (also known as the ‘Master Plan’), in December 2013 which outlined the country’s interests in developing partnerships, enhanced scientific research, and the exploration of new business opportunities.
Japan soon followed with its own Arctic policy document, published in October 2015 and released at the Arctic Circle conference that month. The paper was noteworthy, as not only did it include discussion of economic, environmental, and scientific issues in the Arctic, but there was also a small section on the region’s role in Japanese national security, which stated that ‘There is a risk that factors such as opening of new shipping route and the development of natural resources may become a cause for new friction among states.’ China released its Arctic White Paper in January of this year, which was subject to much international scrutiny and underscored Chinese interests in becoming a key regional player, as a ‘near-Arctic state’. Out of the three Northeast Asian governments, Beijing has been especially vocal about the need for non-Arctic states to participate in regional governments, noting that states outside of the Arctic should have the right to participate in far northern economic projects.
This week’s trilateral summit on the Arctic, held in Shanghai, involved Gao Feng, the Special Representative for Arctic Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Kang Jeong-sik, the Republic of Korea’s Arctic Ambassador, and Arctic Ambassador Eiji Yamamoto with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The welcoming ceremonies for the event were also attended by Shanghai Deputy Mayor Xu Kunlin.
Mr Gao had been a keynote speaker [video] at the recent Arctic Circle conference in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, where he spoke about the White Paper as well as China as an Arctic stakeholder and his country’s interest in participating in Arctic shipping, (via a ‘Polar Silk Road’), and other sustainable economic activities in connection with the ongoing Belt and Road projects. Mr Kang, who was also a presenter in Tórshavn, discussed [video] the history of Korean Arctic engagement, including research and exploration initiatives, at the event and also confirmed that Seoul was planning to release a revised ‘Master Plan’ before the end of this year. Korea is also building a second icebreaking research vessel to join the Areon, and he affirmed that the next Arctic Circle breakout forum would be held in December this year in Seoul.
The Shanghai meeting ended with a joint statement [pdf], (statement in Chinese here), which outlined the importance of data and other information sharing and the possibility of joint Arctic surveys, with agreements to establish further communications links on Arctic subjects. Support for cooperation with the Arctic Council and other regional organisations was re-affirmed, along with the need to promote peace and stability in the region.
The publication of the Chinese Arctic White Paper and the recent agreement on Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) fishing protocols were also welcomed within the statement. However, there had been previous signs that China’s Arctic policy was being looked at with some wariness in some Japanese political quarters.
In February this year, an editorial [In Japanese] in the conservative Japanese news service Yomiuri Shimbuncriticised the White Paper and Beijing’s emerging Arctic policies, noting that the expansion of China’s Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) Initiative into the Arctic could have negative effects on Japanese shipping interests as well as its overall maritime security, given the possibility that China may have security interests in the circumpolar north. The article also noted that since the Arctic Council restricted its voting rights exclusively to the eight Arctic states, Japan needed to participate more fully in the creation of new laws in the region. The piece concluded by stating that Tokyo ‘must strengthen its relevant strategy’, given the possibility of the opening of Arctic trade routes might coincide with increased Chinese ship traffic via Japan’s Soya, Tsugaru and Tsushima straits.
Thus far, these meetings have produced little in terms of concrete regional initiatives beyond pledges for future cooperation, yet these summits have been illustrative of the amount of common ground the three states have relating to Arctic engagement. All three actors, including the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are interested in broadening scientific engagement in the Arctic and all wish to ensure that as the Arctic provides opportunities for greater economic activity in the coming years, that they are not left behind.
Beyond Arctic matters themselves, this annual meeting also represents a significant diplomatic window of opportunity for the three countries, given the number of diplomatic differences the trio are currently facing closer to home. Many of the disputes which have hampered Northeast Asian diplomacy and economic cooperation in recent years have been related to maritime affairs. For example, Beijing and Tokyo remain divided over the boundary of the East China Sea, as well as sovereignty over the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands in the waterway. However, this week also saw the announcement that the Chinese and Japanese governments had agreed to establish a direct communications link to avoid future air or sea incidents in the disputed zones. Japan and South Korea both claim the Dokdo / Takeshima island group, (also known as the Liancourt Rocks), in the Pacific. Japan, under Prime minister Shinzo Abe, has also been moving closer to American and Indian security initiatives, and this month the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces (JMSDF) agreed to join the US and Indian Navy in Malabar exercises off the coast of Guam.
China and South Korea had also clashed diplomatically last year over the agreement between Seoul and Washington to place a missile defence system in South Korean territory to counter potential missile attacks from the north. That system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), has been harshly criticised by Beijing as potentially compromising the Chinese military’s own missile capabilities.
All three states also have a strong stake in reaching a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but there have been strong differences between the governments concerning the resolution of the standoff. While Arctic affairs are unlikely to rise to the very top of the foreign policy agendas for any of the Northeast Asian governments, the Arctic does provide an opportunity for both scientific diplomacy and regional confidence-building to grow and become stronger.
In April this year, Marvel Comics’ Champions series introduced a new superhero into its growing pantheon, namely Amka Aliyak, aka Snowguard. She hails from Pangnirtung, (ᐸᖕᓂᖅᑑᖅ) a real-life town, often nicknamed ‘Pang’ and located in Qikiqtaaluk, Baffin Island in Nunavut. The Inuk teenager is first featured in the middle of her investigation into a mysterious building in the outskirts of her hometown which seemingly appeared overnight. In this week’s issue, Champions #20, she encounters not only a sinister plot which threatens the entire Arctic, but also a captive Inuit spirit and life force named Sila. In later issues, the hero will become Snowguard, with abilities which include shape-shifting and taking on the capabilities of different animals.
Ms Aliyak’s supernatural capabilities are a nod to traditional Inuit legends involving Ijiraat (ᐃᔨᕋᐃᑦ), magical beings who could take on any form. She also appears set to join a group of junior superheroes, known as the ‘Champions’, which include Ironheart, Ms Marvel, Spider-Man and a younger version of the Hulk.
Canada is hardly new to the Marvel universe. In addition to the venerable team of Canadian superheroes known as Alpha Flight, in September 2016 billionaire Tony Stark, (better known as Iron Man), got into an infamous boxing match with real-life Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the pages of the series Civil War II: Choosing Sides. The first-ever Canadian superhero to appear in the comics world, Nelvana [In French], was also of Inuit background, with her stories orginally being published in 1941 via the Triumph-Adventure Comics editions. Snowguard, however, is the first Marvel superhero to hail from the Canadian north and be based on Inuit history and mythology.
This story arc is being written by Toronto-based Marvel author Jim Zub, in consultation with Nyla Innuksuk, founder of the Canadian virtual reality firm Mixtape VR and of Inuit background and having grown up in Nunavut. The new character has the potential to educate a wider audience about daily life in the Canadian North as well as current social and environmental issues in that part of the Arctic.
Nunavut continues to face considerable socio-economic challenges on a variety of fronts. Last month, Nunavut’s health minister, Pat Angnakak, made a statement warning that several communities in the territory, including Pangnirtung, were facing ‘crisis’ conditions in the wake of social problems and a lack of infrastructure and housing. The mayor of another Nunavut community, Gjoa Haven, also warned that his town was also facing a mental health emergency which was especially endangering the town’s youth. Nunavut’s most recent budget, unveiled late last month, included funding to combat health dangers and addictions, and to address crime prevention.
Snowguard’s emerging story appears on the heels of many other new youth-oriented media based on Arctic locations and ideas, including the animated series ‘Molly of Denali’, which takes place in the Alaskan north, and the Iqaluit-based children’s show ‘Anaana’s Tent’ which features segments in English and Inuktitut. It was also announced this week that new author Aviaq Johnston, from Igloolik, Nunavut, received an Indigenous Voices Award for her 2017 young adult book, Those Who Run in the Sky.