Nuuk, Greenland (photo by M. Lanteigne)

Is this on?

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.



America’s Most Toxic Site is in the Alaskan Arctic,‘ [Cryopolitics]
Arctic has warmest winter on record: “It’s just crazy, crazy stuff”,‘ [The Guardian]
World’s largest deposit of mercury is in permafrost, study suggests,‘ [CBC News]
Caught on Camera: Ancient Greenland Sharks,‘ [Scientific American]
Amid growing concern about bad Arctic weather, more shipping companies move into area without icebreakers,‘ [Independent Barents Observer]
“Doomsday” seed vault gets makeover as Arctic heats up,‘ [Local Norway / AP]

Back to the Polls in Greenland

Greenland flag (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

This week, it was announced by Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kim Kielsen, that a parliamentary election would be held next month, with a date of either 17 or 24 April [In Danish] to be determined by 13 March. The vote will be taking place ahead of schedule, as the government was not obligated to hold an election until late November of this year. The last round of elections was held in 2014. Thirty-one seats will be contested in the Greenlandic Parliament (Inatsisartut), with the largest parties being Mr Kielsen’s Siumut (‘Forward’) Party and the Inuit Ataqatigiit (‘Community of the People’), headed by Sara Olsvig [In Danish].

While Greenland was granted ‘self-rule’ [pdf] in 2009, Copenhagen retains oversight of Greenland’s defence and foreign policy issues. The vote is taking place at a time when Greenland faces many questions regarding its economy, foreign policy, and relations with Denmark.

The Greenlandic economy is based on both the fishing industry and an annual block grant from Copenhagen of approximately 3.4 billion Danish kroner (US540 million), but the island is hoping to diversify its economy both through the developing of mining projects and, by taking a page from next door neighbour, Iceland, expanding its tourism industry to meet a growing international demand for recreational travel in the polar regions. However, development of both these industries is seen as being hampered by the lack of infrastructure, including buildings and roads, in Greenland and especially outside of the capital of Nuuk.

Among the major questions [In Danish] which will likely form the bulk of the election debate include issues such as improved education, health care and housing, possible new airports to better support increased tourist numbers, and potential reforms of the omnipresent fishing industry.

Another thorny issue which may appear in the election debates involves the responsibility for the cleaning up of abandoned US military installations left over from the cold war. An agreement between Denmark and Greenland was struck in January of this year which would set aside 180 million kroner (US$29 million) as an initial budget for the removal of the debris. However, there are critics, including within the fledgling pro-sovereignty movement Partii Nunatta Qitornai [In Danish], led by former Greenland Foreign Minister Vittus Qujaukitsoq, who have argued [In Danish] that the amount is insufficient.

The number of current and potential mining projects in Greenland has increased in recent years, leading to questions about whether metals and minerals will begin to assume a greater percentage of the island’s income. These endeavours include a ruby and pink sapphire mine which formally opened in May 2017 at Aappaluttoq in south-western Greenland, and a developing mining operation for rare earth elements (REEs), uranium and zinc at Kvanefjeld, overseen by Australia’s Greenland Minerals and Energy, partnering with a Chinese firm, Shenghe Resources.

Greenland has numerous deposits of base and precious metals, as well as gemstones, which are becoming more accessible along the Greenlandic coast as the island’s ice sheet continues to erode due to climate change. However, the possibility of expanded mining operations introduces the question of potential environmental damage and even further diminishing of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

nuuk coast
Coast of Nuuk, Greenland (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

The relationship with Denmark and the possibility of further Greenlandic sovereignty or even independence will likely hover over the election process for the next month. The idea of outright independence, especially as a result of the development of the mining and fossil fuel sectors reducing dependence on Copenhagen, was extensively debated five years ago when energy and commodity prices were much higher and then-Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond expressed support for an eventual path to a separate Greenlandic state.

However, in the wake of a changed global economy this discussion has cooled but hardly disappeared. While many Greenland politicians are open to the idea of independence, opinions differ on a possible timetable. There is also the question of how to achieve separation from the Kingdom of Denmark without causing an economic downturn, especially since Greenland has a small population (56,000) and an economy which is tied to Copenhagen in several ways beyond the annual Danish stipend. The Danish government is also wary about the possibility of increased foreign investment in Greenland becoming a catalyst for growing public support for independence.

Denmark has focused much specific attention on China’s interests in Greenland, especially as the country’s Belt and Road trade corridors are set to expand into the Arctic in the coming years. A December 2017 report [pdf] by the Danish Military Intelligence Service noted that Chinese diplomacy in Greenland was primarily commercial in nature but that ‘there are certain risks related to large-scale Chinese investments in Greenland due to the effect that these investments would have on an economy of Greenland’s size.’ For example, it was reported in April of last year that the Danish government intervened when the Hong Kong mining firm General Nice, which owns the rights to potential iron mining at Isua in south-west Greenland, sought to purchase a deserted Danish naval base at Gronnedal.

The elections are likely to be watched very carefully in Denmark as well as in much of the Arctic region, as Greenland’s economic potential becomes more apparent. The results of the vote could lead to marked economic changes on the island, and possibly a more open pathway towards significant political changes as well.

[The author would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this blog post.]

‘China’s Polar Push’ – A CSIS China Power Podcast

Tiananmen Square, Beijing (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

This month, I was honoured to be asked by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC to participate in a podcast interview on the subject of China’s developing polar policies, including the recent release of Beijing’s first governmental White Paper on the Arctic.

The interview, entitled China’s Polar Push, was recorded as part of the Centre’s ongoing China Power Project, includes topics ranging from the history of Beijing’s first steps into participating in Arctic policymaking in the last century, China’s emerging scientific and economic interests in the circumpolar north, cooperation with Arctic states, including Russia, and the question of China as a ‘near-Arctic state’.

The podcast, in its entirety, can be heard via the link below, and a big thank you / merci beaucoup to the CSIS for name-dropping Over the Circle!

China’s Polar Push: A Conversation with Marc Lanteigne‘ – CSIS China Power podcast, 26 February 2018.

How to Define an Arctic Stakeholder?

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

On 26 January, after more than two years of speculation, the government of China announced the publication of its first ever governmental White Paper (Chinese version here), on its Arctic engagement policies, following in the footsteps of its East Asian neighbours, namely Japan and South Korea, who have also released policy documents detailing their emerging Arctic interests. However, as the second-largest economy in the world and a rising global power, China is the largest ‘non-Arctic’ state to develop a comprehensive Arctic policy. When various strands of Beijing’s Arctic diplomacy began to appear after China became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, there was much speculation as to potential contents of a Chinese Arctic policy document.

What can now be confirmed is that despite its lack of Arctic borders, Beijing considers itself a significant Arctic actor, with Arctic interests extending well beyond strictly scientific diplomacy and now including a wide array of economic concerns as well as strategic areas. Moreover, the paper confirmed the Arctic would become one of the many components of China’s ever-expanding ‘Belt and Road’ trade initiative. Since last year, the Arctic, along with the Pacific Ocean, have been added to the Indian Ocean / Mediterranean regions as essential maritime trade passages for the Chinese economy.

Since Beijing began to clarify its emerging Arctic policies in the period both before and after becoming a Council observer, there were concerns raised in the international community that, despite its lack of polar geography, China was seeking to integrate itself into the region. The use of the term ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家) in Chinese studies and commentaries regarding the country’s Arctic policy did not reassure critics who were concerned that a revisionist policy in the region was being crafted. The White Paper, entitled ‘China’s Arctic Policy’ (Zhongguo de beiji zhengce 中国的北极政策) built on these ideas while reflecting Beijing’s need to walk a fine line [pdf] between on one hand being viewed as a challenger to current Arctic governance, and on the other being seen as a peripheral player in the region.

Beijing’s White Paper has received much scrutiny in the international press, but one critical voice was heard last week via an editorial in the conservative Japanese news service Yomiuri Shimbun. The piece argued that Beijing was seeking to develop its Arctic policy with an eye to expanding as a maritime power, especially since travel (shipping?) via the Arctic Ocean could significantly reduce transit times between Asia and other parts of the world.

However, also telling about the editorial was that it noted the eight Arctic states had ‘substantively monopolised rights and interests’ in the Arctic, and that with no international agreement in place in the region comparable to the Antarctic Treaty, it was Tokyo’s responsibility to further strengthen its Arctic policies to avoid being left behind. The article also stressed that ‘it is important to impose a check on exclusive moves by Arctic coastal countries’. In another article, a Japanese academic noted that the opening of the Arctic might permit China to move military vessels into the region, and that Japan should not ignore the Arctic while giving too much attention to the security situation in the East China Sea, which has a maritime border in dispute by Beijing and Tokyo.

Although China and Japan, along with South Korea, agreed to pool their resources in developing greater Arctic cooperation in scientific affairs during a Tokyo summit in June 2017, with a follow-up meeting scheduled to be held in China this year, there nonetheless remains the question of whether there may be competition in Northeast Asia over Arctic policy, especially as the far north’s economic potential, via shipping but also energy and resources, continues to grow.

China’s new Arctic White Paper, and the responses by other non-Arctic states including Japan, have added much to the quietly determined debates over how to best define an ‘Arctic stakeholder’ and the ideal balance of rights and responsibilities for non-Arctic states with Arctic policies, especially as the region opens up to greater economic development. The Arctic Council, given its central status as the most preeminent decision-making body in the region, will undoubtedly be called upon to contribute to the resolution of these issues.

According to the Council’s rules of procedure [pdf] regarding observers, implemented after much debate at the organisation’s Ministerial Meeting at Kiruna, Sweden in 2013, a non-Arctic state, (or international governmental or non-governmental organisation), is granted observer status upon consent of the member states, a decision also based on whether a given candidate can make positive contributions to the Council itself and recognises the sovereignty of the Arctic states, the Law of the Sea, and the status of regional indigenous peoples. Observers must also have ‘demonstrated their Arctic interests and expertise’.

In addition, observers are to make ‘relevant contributions’ through participation in the Council’s working groups. Above all, the primary role of the observers is of course to observe, but also participate in working groups and to produce statements and documents. The right to vote and the bulk of the decision-making capabilities, however, remain squarely with the ‘Arctic Eight’ member states. Although these rules have helped to better clarify the status of observers at a time when a new cohort of states, (China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea), was assuming that title, the overall question of the definition of an Arctic stakeholder remains.

With thirteen observer countries, (the latest being Switzerland, which joined last year), many of which like China are representing a high level of political and economic power outside of the Arctic, and more seeking to gain admission, can the Arctic Council’s current configuration adjust to the engagement of so many observer governments? Will there be future allowances made for observers to have different levels of rights and obligations within Arctic organisations?

Although many Arctic Council observer governments have sought to use various means to develop Arctic identities, (the Government of Britain for example defined the country as the Arctic’s ‘closest neighbour’ [pdf] in its 2013 Arctic policy paper, given the proximity of the Shetland Islands to the Arctic Circle), the question of Arctic identity, and the rights of non-Arctic states, has been especially pressing amongst the Council observers from Asia. China’s White Paper stated that while no non-Arctic country had claims to sovereignty in the Arctic, non-Arctic states did have the right to engage in scientific and economic activities in the region in accordance with international law. In addition to China and Japan, policymakers and specialists in India have also voiced questions [paywall] about the potential exclusion of non-Arctic countries from Arctic development.

Arctic Council members, especially Canada and Russia, have been wary of the possibility of some form of expanded Arctic organisation, which would allow non-Arctic states a greater degree of decision-making rights. The possibility of using an Antarctic Treaty model to govern the activities of both Arctic and non-Arctic states would be problematic not only due to state-level politics but also the challenge of defining Arctic boundaries and incorporating the concerns of indigenous populations.

Nonetheless, as the Arctic continues to grow as an international concern and should the region begin to develop greater economic, (and by association strategic), importance in the future due to the ongoing effects of climate change, many states outside of the Arctic may assume a degree of stakeholder status which would include a higher level of recognition. The issue of how best to balance the requirements of Arctic nations and peoples and the growing amount of scrutiny from actors further south is becoming more pressing, and must be addressed sooner rather than later.

South Korea’s Arctic Journeys

Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds, Seoul (Photo by Marc Lanteigne).

With the start of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyongchang, as well as historic meetings between senior government officials from North and South Korea after months of tensions in the region caused by North Korean missile and nuclear tests and harsh words between US President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, many eyes are on the Korean peninsula this week. The unusually cold weather at the Olympic venue during the opening ceremonies was a reminder that Korea has much experience with subzero climates, including in the Arctic. This month will mark the thirtieth anniversary of South Korea’s polar research programmes, an event which will be marked on 17 February by the burying of a time capsule, due to be unearthed seventy years hence, at the South Korean facilities at King Sejong Station in Antarctica.

South Korea was one of the ‘Asia-Arctic five’, or AA5, along with China, India, Japan and Singapore, which were granted formal observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013. Much of the focus on Asia-Arctic relations since then has been on Beijing’s Arctic policy, due to the country’s great power status and its rapidly developing regional interests. South Korea, by contrast, has been commonly viewed as a ‘quiet’ participant in Arctic affairs.

However, Seoul’s Arctic policies have been developing [pdf] at an accelerated pace since gaining its observer status. The country was the first of the AA5 states to publish a governmental-level white paper on its Arctic policy in 2013. The document, ‘Arctic Policy of the Republic of Korea’ [pdf], also known as Seoul’s ‘Master Plan’ for the Arctic, stresses the policy goals of developing Arctic partnerships, expanding scientific research programmes, and exploring new business opportunities. South Korea has also been participating in trilateral talks on Arctic cooperation with China and Japan, despite political differences among the three governments over other issues, including security and maritime sovereignty.

As with several other non-Arctic states, South Korea maintains an Arctic research base in Ny-Ålesund, namely the Dasan Research Station which was founded in April 2002, under the aegis of the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), based in Incheon, to promote the scientific study of sea ice / glaciology, oceanography, marine and terrestrial ecology, atmospheric sciences, and the sciences of the upper atmosphere. KOPRI also oversees Antarctica projects as well as the King Sejong (1988) and the Jang Bogo (2014) Antarctic research stations.

In 2009, the icebreaker Araon was formally launched and has been active in developing Korean polar research. In September 2017, the icebreaker completed a more than two-month Arctic exploration mission, which included transits near the North Pole, as well as the Bering and Chukchi Seas, to study various aspects of local climate change and ice erosion. The ship then commenced a journey, expected to last about 220 days, to Antarctic waters in October last year.

Korea has also been well represented at major ‘Track II’ conferences on Arctic affairs including the Arctic Circle at Reykjavík and Arctic Frontiers at Tromsø. Also on the Track II level, the Korean Maritime Institute (KMI) has since 2015 sponsored Korean Arctic Academy (KAA) courses in Busan, via the UArctic Network, on an annual basis.

South Korea’s considerable shipbuilding and shipping capabilities are also being sought for potential Arctic projects, especially as the Northern Sea Route (NSR) begins to open to further commercial shipping between Asia and Europe. This month, Russia’s ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Timonin, expressed his country’s interest in cooperating more closely with Korean shipping firms to develop the NSR. South Korean shipping was battered considerably by the global economic slowdown after 2008, and so the Arctic has been seen as an emerging new business frontier.

In addition to economic interests, it can be argued that South Korea, as compared to other Asian observers in the Council, is in a significantly strong position to develop ‘scientific diplomacy’ in the Arctic region. Scientific diplomacy has been described as the use of collaboration among the physical as well as the social sciences to promote peaceful diplomatic exchanges between governments. The objective [paywall] of such diplomacy has often been to explore the nature of exchanges and negotiations between scientific actors as well as between such actors and policymakers in a diplomatic milieu. Under optimal conditions, scientific diplomacy not only creates added knowledge, but also a greater atmosphere of congeniality and cooperation which may spill over into other sectors.

The scientific-diplomatic approach has been very useful for both Arctic and non-Arctic states seeking to maintain peaceful relations in the region and to improve communication in Arctic affairs between Arctic and non-Arctic states. Several of the AA5 states have developed policies consistent with scientific diplomacy in order to develop a more visible presence in Arctic affairs, and China’s recent Arctic White Paper has also placed a great deal of emphasis on scientific cooperation to better understand changing conditions in the far north. Although Seoul is interested, along with its Northeast Asian neighbours, in the growing economic opportunities in the Arctic, scientific interests and cooperation have remains at the centre of South Korea’s approach to Arctic affairs.