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.
As China began to expand its Arctic diplomacy over the past decade, there was much speculation [pdf] as to when the Arctic Ocean might be officially added to Beijing’s ever-expanding Belt and Road (yidai yilu一带一路) trade projects. The inclusion of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as Africa, Eurasia and South Asia within this initiative had begun to take form in 2013. Ultimately, it was in June 2017 that the initial connection between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Arctic was made via a policy document, ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative’, co-written by Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the then-State Oceanic Administration (SOA). The Arctic Ocean was cited as a ‘blue economic passage’ (lanse jingji tongdao 蓝色经济通道) which China would help build in order to enhance maritime commerce and trade.
The importance of the Arctic to Chinese trade, and its links to the BRI, were further underscored in Beijing’s January 2018 Arctic White Paper. The document affirmed that China sought to deepen cooperation with Arctic actors ‘to advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, so as to build a community with a shared future for mankind and contribute to peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic.’ Beyond these goals, however, it remained to be seen what sorts of infrastructure projects, a cornerstone of the BRI, would be planned for the Arctic regions.
Until recently, it had been Russia which had seen the concentration of actual and prospective Chinese investment in infrastructure related to the Belt and Road, including plans announced in June of last year for as many as seventy such joint projects, including within the Russian Arctic. This degree of policy coordination between Beijing and Moscow has begun to raise concerns in the United States, with American officials starting to sound the alarm over potential security challenges to a closer Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to attend the upcoming Arctic Council summit in Rovaniemi, Finland in May as a counterweight to China and Russia. It was also reported this week that the Trump administration was drafting a new Arctic defence strategy which would emphasise the growing ‘China challenge’ in the region.
Other Russian infrastructure projects, including the proposed deep-water port at Arkhangelsk and accompanying Belkomur rail link connecting the White Sea with the Ural region, mooted in late 2017, (although with little follow-up news since then), may also form a more physical part of the BRI trade infrastructure in the Arctic. Beyond Russia, in December 2018 the Hålogaland suspension bridge in Norway, connecting the Narvik region with Øyjorda, near Tromsø and the northern Swedish border, was completed in partnership with the Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (Sichuan Luqiao 四川路桥 / SRBG), based in Chengdu.
However, another actor in China’s Arctic link building, Finland, is also starting to gain visibility in light of recent potential transportation and communications initiatives. This month, it was reported that a Chinese firm may be in a position to underwrite the long- discussed tunnel between Helsinki and the Estonian capital of Tallinn. China’s Touchstone Capital Partners was named [In Finnish] as expressing interest in investing €15 billion (US$17 million) for the watershed 100km tunnel’s construction. Although there has been little comment thus far from the Chinese government on the project, this link could form another element of the BRI’s far northern tier. Under the terms of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Touchstone and the FinEst Bay Area Development concern, Touchstone would receive a minority stake in the would-be construction project. (Even though a date for the state of construction has yet to be announced, it was reported in December of last year that tickets were already for sale for tunnel trips.)
The possibility of a rail link between Kirkenes, Norway, and Rovaniemi, possibly with Chinese support, has also not faded, despite the publication of a report last month stating the project was not commercially viable in its present form. There remains enthusiasm in both cities about the possibility of the rail link eventually hooking up with Russia and perhaps the Chinese rail systems, thus completing an additional land component to the growing maritime shipping potential of the Russian and European Arctic regions.
It was also announced in early 2018 that China and Finland were seeking to cooperate on the laying down of a fibre-optic cable to improve internet connectivity and data-sharing in the Arctic. If successful, this endeavour would further cement the ‘virtual’ aspect of the BRI in the Arctic. However, this plan may be tempered by the ongoing global debate over the Chinese firm Huawei and its attempts to set the standard for a nascent fifth generation (5G) mobile communication service, especially given that one of Huawei’s major competitors is Finland’s Nokia.
Nonetheless, cooperation in the Arctic may be developing as a significant cornerstone of Sino-Finnish relations, as demonstrated by the meeting in Beijing this January between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Finnish Prime Minister Sauli Niinistö which culminated in the release of a Joint Action Plan [pdf] including plans to deepen bilateral research partnerships in the Arctic and to increase Finnish presence in the Belt and Road. A Finnish firm, Aker Arctic Technology, had teamed with the Beijing-based China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), to design China’s second icebreaker, the Snow Dragon II (Xuelong 2), which launched in September of last year.
As well, a Finnish government report [pdf] on China and the Arctic was published in February this year, spearheaded by Timo Koivurova, professor and director of the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi. (note: OtC editors / writers Marc Lanteigne and Mingming Shi were contributors to this report). Another opportunity for Sino-Finnish Arctic dialogue will likely also appear at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in May. The document detailed both Finland’s current cooperation with China as well as possible new areas of joint dialogue, including in the areas of technical cooperation, energy, data centres, tourism and transportation. Although Russia will likely continue to be the focal point of much BRI planning on China’s part, Finland is fast becoming another principal player as the Belt and Road moves from paper to reality.
The main Arctic-related topics discussed in the paper included the current state of American Arctic policy, the role of the US in key regimes including the Arctic Council and the UN Conventional of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the United States is not currently a party to, and environmental challenges in the Arctic.
In addition to the Lomonosov Ridge question, other regional disputes were explained, including the demarcation process of the Beaufort Sea between Canada and the US, and the legal status of the emerging Northwest Passage, which Canada views as internal waters and the US and European Union considering the passage as an international waterway. The geopolitical situation in the Arctic, including the growing roles of China and Russia, were also included in the report.
One of the lesser-known issues entangled in the increasingly divisive political atmosphere of Washington DC has been funding for new icebreaking vessels responding to the strategic changes taking place in the Arctic. The United States currently has two operational icebreakers, one heavy (USCGC Polar Star) and one medium (USCGC Healy), both under the command of the United States Coast Guard. Engine problems have kept a third, the heavy icebreaker USCGC Polar Sea, out of service since 2010, and the future of the ship remains in doubt.
Late last month, a fire broke in the Polar Star’s incinerator room when the ship was traversing the coast of Antarctica, further underscoring the age and vulnerabilities of the vessel, (commissioned in 1976). Even before the incident, the Polar Star’s voyage to the southern polar regions, a mission to re-supply the McMurdo Station on Antarctica, had been beset by other problems including technical faults and power failures, a situation compounded by the recent government shutdown which forced the vessel’s crew to temporarily work without pay.
With the Arctic welcoming increasing commerce, as well as growing concerns about Russia’s expanded strategic interests in the far north, there have been concerns raised about whether the US is preparing to cede the Arctic to other powers. This fear has been connected to what has been called the ‘icebreaker gap’ between Russia and the United States, given that Moscow operates more than forty-five [pdf] icebreaking ships, including nuclear powered vessels, with more advanced models on the way. Chief among these are the nuclear powered Leader (Лидер)-class heavy icebreakers currently under development and boasting cutting-edge technologies, (a heavy-rock music video describing the vessels was uploaded [In Russian] to YouTube in June last year). The planned ships are larger than any previous icebreakers, reported to be 205 meters (673 feet) in length and weighing 71,000 tons, with a cost of US$1.6 billion per ship. These icebreakers would join the still-new Arktika (Арктика)-class ships, the first of which was launched in June 2016.
During then-US President Barack Obama’s watershed tour of Alaska in August-September 2015, he issued a public call for new icebreakers to be built for the Coast Guard not only in response to the opening of the Arctic but also anticipating the potential competition for regional influence with Russia as well as other emerging Arctic players such as China. However, no progress was made during the final years of the Obama administration and the first two years of the Donald Trump government, despite a pledge from Mr Trump in 2017 that he would seek to obtain funding for new ships.
Movement towards funding for a new icebreaker faced an unexpected obstacle during the middle of the year when the US House of Representatives sought to withdraw funding for the vessel in favour of using the money, (an estimated US$750 million), to instead help finance the highly-controversial border wall project between the US and Mexico in the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections. As one US General recently argued, the political posturing concerning the wall has distracted the country from many other security challenges, including the growing presence of Russia and China in the Arctic.
In January this year, a spending bill which brought an end to a thirty-five day government shutdown did include an allotment of US$655 billion for construction of a new heavy icebreaker, as well as US$20 million for a second vessel and US$740 million for new cutters, most of which would be stationed in Alaska. Alaskan senator Lisa Murkowski hailed the decision as a significant step towards an eventual ‘icebreaker fleet.’ Alaska’s junior senator, Dan Sullivan, added that ‘with this appropriation, Congress and the Trump administration are acknowledging that Alaska is America’s Arctic.’ While the future vessel has yet to be assigned a home port, it is projected to be launched in 2023.
The announcement of the icebreaker construction is a major element of overall plans by the Trump government to improve its visibility in the Arctic due to concerns about great power competition. An updated US governmental policy paper on the Arctic is expected to be published before mid-year, and there have been efforts by senior government officials to assure the international community that the country has no plans to withdraw from the Arctic. In January this year, it was announced [paywall] by US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer that at least one US Naval vessel would enter the Arctic Ocean, including local shipping lanes, as a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ (FONOP), to further show the flag in the region. In October 2018, a US Navy strike group was operating in the Nordic Arctic region as part of the Trident Juncture NATO military simulations.
As well, during a brief stopover in Reykjavík, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson, along with Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, to assure his hosts Washington was not neglecting the Arctic region. During his remarks at a press conference at Reykjavík’s Harpa opera house, Pompeo noted that ‘we know that when America retreats, nations like China and Russia will fill the vacuum. It’s inevitable if we are not there.’
However, the question remains as to whether and how new American icebreakers will augment US interests in the Arctic as well as influencing a potential balance of power in the region. More to the point, will the emerging security issues in the Arctic, including access to resources and shipping lanes, be affected by the addition of a single US icebreaker, or possibly two, in the next five years? Parity with the Russian fleet does not appear to be a viable policy for Washington.
As well, the debate facing the US, along with other major Arctic actors, includes the nature of the security threats facing the region and the possible unilateral and multilateral solutions. The potential ‘resource scramble’ in the Arctic has given way [paywall] to a greater pragmatism in light of low fossil fuel and commodity prices. As well, there is little in the way of contested space in the Arctic which may inflame tensions, and most Arctic resources becoming available for potential exploitation lie within established national borders and/or exclusive economic zones. There are exceptions, such as Hans Island and potential disputes over the Lomonosov Ridge and the demarcation of continental shelves in the Central Arctic Ocean, but thus far these issues have been firmly relegated to diplomatic circles. There are now concerns about Russian military activities in Northern Europe, but these incidents have largely involved either submarines or aircraft, including a recent example of ‘swaggering’ near the Norwegian-Russian border.
There have also been questions about the expense of such vessels versus the benefits, as well as the feasibility of potentially subcontracting icebreaker construction to another Arctic state, such as Canada or Finland. Certainly, the deployment of new icebreakers does demonstrate a strengthened US commitment to Arctic affairs, along similar lines as China’s deployment of a second icebreaker, the Xuelong 2 (雪龙 2) in September of last year.
However, the next American icebreaker, when it finally puts out to sea, will hardly be a silver bullet for American Arctic policy given the other pressing issues in the region beyond hard security. For example, the Trump government has maintained its aversion to acknowledging the effects of climate change in the Arctic (or elsewhere), and the Arctic as a whole has scarcely been on the presidential agenda for the past two years. The next American Arctic policy paper may address that, but constructing an updated US commitment to the Arctic will be more complicated than simply counting icebreakers.
[Today’s post marks the beginning of a new feature for Over the Circle. Mingming Shi, Associate Editor of OtC, will be publishing the first of a series of articles in Chinese which will examine the subject of Greenland in the Arctic.]
This year’s Barents Spektakel event in Kirkenes was dedicated to transforming the city into the ‘world’s most northern Chinatown’, complete with cultural events, art, music and literature readings, as well as public seminars to discuss the expanding role of China in the Arctic. Slightly more than two years have passed since diplomatic relations between China and Norway were restored in the wake of the 2010 Nobel Prize Incident, and the two states have sought to make up for lost time by restarting free trade negotiations and encouraging cultural and educational links.
However, it is difficult to examine Sino-Norwegian relations without bringing in the two countries’ mutual neighbour, Russia, especially since the expanding Arctic policies under Vladimir Putin have had considerable effects on both Beijing and Oslo. One of the keystone seminars at the Spektakel this year was therefore focussed on how and why developing cooperation between China and Russia in the Arctic would affect not only Norway, but the entirety of the circumpolar north.
[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The public panel discussion ‘China + Russia’, organised by the Kirkenes-based Barents Secretariat and the Utsyn – Foreign Policy and Security Forum, brought together specialists from around the region, including Maxim Belov, Deputy of the Murmansk Regional Duma, (Murmansk being only a three-hour drive away from Kirkenes over the northern border) and Guro Brandshaug, the Managing Director of the Kirkenes Næringshage [in Norwegian] (Business Garden). Also on the panel was Arne O. Holm, a regional journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the English and Norwegian news service High North News, and Professor Øystein Tunsjø with the Norwegian Institute of Defense Studies, Center for Asian Security Studies, in Oslo. The quartet was tasked with the challenging job of analysing the scope of Sino-Russian relations in the far north, a subject which included bilateral diplomacy, economic cooperation, and strategic concerns.
There has been no shortage of developing Arctic projects in Russia with which Chinese interests have linked, including construction projects, seismic mapping, and the ambitious Yamal liquefied natural gas facilities in Siberia, with China being praised not only for its eagerness to invest but also the ease of developing business cooperation. There has also been much enthusiasm for growing Chinese tourism in both the Russian Arctic and in northern Norway. All of these endeavours have been tied in various ways to an emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’, which by mid-2017 had been formally tied to Beijing’s greater ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), a series of trade routes connecting China with key regions including Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and to a increasing degree Europe.
Russia is also a major partner for the BRI, especially in the Arctic, given that much of China’s interests in that region connect with Russia in myriad ways, particularly related to Beijing’s hopes of building a more formal maritime transit conduit to Europe via the Russian Arctic. There was much talk in the panel discussion, and throughout the entire Spektakel, about the potential benefits of increased sea trade via the ‘Northern Sea Route’ (NSR), which could lead to numerous spinoff projects in the Russian and Nordic Arctic. These potentially include port expansions at Arkhangelsk and Kirkenes, and a planned Arctic railway connecting Kirkenes and Rovaniemi which could in theory be used to complete a rail link all the way from Northern Europe to China. This would provide a secondary transport means for emerging mining interests, and a tunnel project which could link Estonia and Finland.
A question was raised, however, about whether China’s economic power, coupled with the economic ostracism of the Russia by the West, left Russian regional interests ‘trapped’. However, that was countered by the statement that ‘Russia is not in Europe, it is not in China. It is Russia,’ and that Moscow was capable of juggling numerous foreign policy challenges at once. It was added though that Russia was benefitting from the introduction of Chinese culture, including in the Arctic regions, and that Russian culture was also thriving in China.
Not all of the panelists were optimistic, however, about the Ice Silk Road becoming a reality, noting the still considerable logistical challenges in building sea and land links over such a large and formidable region. The question of to what degree the Arctic was really a Chinese foreign policy priority was also introduced, but there was a counterargument that even if the Arctic was tenth in priority for Beijing, that still represented a major commitment given China’s overall size and economic power. As well, there have been concerns expressed in Norway and elsewhere in the European Arctic about the growing strategic closeness of Chinese and Russian interests, and there is also the question of how deep Sino-Russian trust actually goes. China’s economy has advanced well beyond Russia’s, and Moscow has traditionally been very sensitive about its Arctic sovereignty.
One speaker added that Norway and Russia were in agreement that neither government wanted to see China become the dominant power in the Arctic. However, it was also suggested that China and Russia would prefer each other to be partners, especially given their mutual concerns about American policies. A window of opportunity may have also opened for both powers in the Arctic as a result of perceived US negligence, with one speaker even going as far as to say that the administration of Donald Trump ‘does not care about the Arctic’.
As the panelists discussed, where does the Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic leave Norway? There was the thought that the traditional Norwegian place at the steering wheel of Arctic affairs was not as assured as it once was. Another concern was that there needed to be distinction between policymaking in the capitals of the three states, and the interests of the communities, including in the border regions, within the Arctic itself.
All of the main actors in the Arctic, it was agreed, needed to be wary of misunderstandings related to the Sino-Russian partnership, and take note of business opportunities which were appearing because of this cooperation. Another hurdle for Norway, however, has been the Western sanctions which were levied against the Putin government after the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) since 2014. The sanctions remain unpopular in Northern Norway due to the hit on local businesses, and it even came up in the panel that there was a ‘populist view’ that the sanctions should be lifted.
Finally, the question of Svalbard was also raised, given its distinct international legal status but also its geographical importance as a jump-off point for much of the Arctic Ocean. China has maintained a research station at Ny-Ålesund since 2003. It was also noted that the centenary of the creation of the Spitsbergen Treaty which defined the legal rights of Svalbard was taking place in 2020, but that there were no concrete plans in Oslo to observe that milestone, adding to discussions in the panel about a north/south divide in Norway as it pertained to Arctic policymaking.
One idea on which the panelists all agreed was that China’s developing presence in the Arctic was beginning to transform many parts of that region, and that further discussions about the Arctic would most likely continue to involve China, a point to which both Norway and Russia are beginning to pay greater attention.