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 various Arctic sea routes begin to open up for longer periods during the summer months, much anticipation has been created ofthe Arctic Ocean as a faster means of maritime trade between Asia, Europe and North America. Yet, with increased sea traffic comes the greater risk of pollution and damage from accidents and collisions, along with regional and global pressures to ensure future Arctic shipping does not add to the already considerable environmental stresses in the far north.
Beyond the Arctic Council, there have been several other regional initiatives underway or in preparation in order to address the inevitable uptick bothin Arctic shipping, as well as with other civilian vessels such as cruise liners. For example, the Polar Code, developed by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) of the United Nations in 2014 and entering into effect in January 2017, was created in order to better regulate ship traffic and to protect vessels and local ecosystems at both poles.
Further measures, however, have also been advocated to protect the Arctic Ocean in the face of increased shipping, including calls for a prohibition on heavy fuel oil (HFO) in the far northern regions covered by the Polar Code; (a map of the polar regions under the Code’s jurisdiction can be viewed here).
This type of fuel has been cited as comparatively more toxic andrequiring a longer time to break down in ocean waters, but HFO is popular as it is less expensive than alternative fuels. Despite the dangers of spillage, it was estimated that approximately 75% of fuel used by ships in the Arctic fell into the category of heavy fuels. Such a ban in the Arctic, if successful, would match the regulations which went into effect in 2011 by the IMO and which cover the waters southward of 60ºS surrounding Antarctica.
However, unlike near the South Pole, a ban on heavy fuels in the Arctic has proven to be more politically complicated, despite a growing list of governments supportingsuch rules. This week saw a debate on the subject which resulted in an agreement to phase out HFO for ships operating in most of the Arctic Ocean, pending a review of the measure on indigenous communities. This decision was made at the 72nd session of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), held this week in London.
The prospect of such a ban has been debated in the Arctic for several years, and was a main point of a 2009 assessment of maritime shipping trends published by the Arctic Council. Since that time, momentum for such a restriction sporadically moved forward, although there were differences over timetables and coverage. During the middle of last year, a proposal was passed to the IMO to phase out all heavy fuel in the majority of the Arctic by 2021. Among the governments which advocated the proposition were Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. The United States also threw its support behind the ban, despite previous criticisms of multilateral environmental policies by the Trump administration, including the decision in December 2017 to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the US withdrawal from the Paris accords.
New Zealand, another supporter of an Arctic HFO ban, could point to a near miss near the South Pole more than a decade ago as a justification for its stance. NZ had to face a potential ecological disaster in the country’s Ross Dependency region in Antarctica in 2007 when a Japanese whaling vessel, the Nisshin Maru, caught fire, which resulted in one fatality on board the ship. The vessel was estimated to be carrying about a thousand tonnes of heavy fuel which, had a leak occurred, would have resulted in HFO washing up on nearby Antarctic beaches.
Not all Arctic states were in agreement as to how best to implement a HFO prohibition, and in what timeframe. The government of Canada, while supporting the prohibition, called for a longer transition period and further study, out of concern for the potentiallynegative impact on Arctic communities, a stance which has been criticised by environmental groups. This notably placed Ottawa at odds with Finland, which spearheaded the 2021 due date for a ban.
According to the Clean Arctic Alliance, an environmental NGO which strongly supported the removal of HFOs from the Arctic, other countries, including Australia, Denmark, France, Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as the Arab League, were also supportive of a ban after an economic impact assessment was completed. A main question, however, is how the HFO ban will be received by two other major economies, namely Russia, which has by far the largest maritime presence in the Arctic, and China, which also wishes to make greater use of the Arctic for Asia-Europe cargo shipping. Given ongoing concerns about the longstanding effects of a heavy oil spill in the Arctic, it is likely that environmental and other concerned groups will be pushing for the prohibition as soon as is feasible.
A new online article written by the editor has just been published by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) in Washington, DC. The piece looks at the deepening economic relationship between China and Russia in Siberia and the Russian Far East as Beijing’s Arctic interests grow in scope.
Moscow has been early participant in the Xi Jinping’s government’s Belt and Road initiative since its first components were announced in 2013. Yet the Russian Arctic has been more directly integrated into the BRI as a result of Chinese interests in making greater use of the emerging Northern Sea Route (NSR) as well as the resource potential of Siberia/RFE. More recently, potential communications and transportation infrastructure have formed a greater part of Sino-Russian Arctic cooperation. The question, however, is how best to define this emerging partnership?
In the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, questions over the future shape of British foreign affairs, including post-departure relations with the European Union, increasingly thorny debates over border relations in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, and economic ties with the British Commonwealth as well as big markets such as China, are all high on the priority list. This week, via a new report by the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London, it was confirmed that the UK is also seeking to maintain a strong policy presence in the Arctic in the coming years as part of its foreign policy shakeup.
The FCO report, entitled ‘Beyond the Ice: UK Policy Towards the Arctic’ [pdf] is a follow up to Britain’s first Arctic policy paper [pdf] which was published in 2013 and described environmental and human development concerns, as well as the nascent economic prospects in the region. The original paper advocated that British policies towards the Arctic should reflect three core principles, namely respect for the rights of Arctic states and peoples, leadership of both the Arctic states but also the United Kingdom in the region, and promoting cooperation in the Arctic via various types of dialogues.
Both the 2013 document and its successor pointed out the UK’s distinct geographic position vis-à-vis the Arctic, given the closeness of the Shetland Islands to the Arctic Circle. For example, in the forward to the 2018 paper, it was noted in the preface written by Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State for the Polar Regions, that the Shetland capital of Lerwick was closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Great Britain has been an observer in the Arctic Council since 1998, two years after the organisation was founded.
The 2018 paper represented a refocus of UK priorities towards the Arctic, firstly outlining the need to promote British influence in the Arctic as part of a ‘Global Britain’ outlook. Britain is seen as having access to several varieties of regional cooperation opportunities, including via the Arctic Council but also through bilateral relations with the ‘Arctic Eight’ governments and other observers, with recent agreements with Canada (research and technology development) and Norway (joint scientific research projects) being highlighted as key cases.
Science diplomacy was highlighted as a main outlet for British cooperation with other Arctic actors, including many within the European Union. The report appeared to suggest that these EU ties would be perpetuated after Brexit, but much may depend on the type of separation agreement which eventually takes shape between now and 2019. A textbox in the report outlined the recent regional scientific contributions of the British research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, (much better known by its previous, short-lived, proposed name, Boaty McBoatface).
Other forms of multilateral cooperation on the governmental level, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), fishing agreements in the Central Arctic Ocean, and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, as well as via Track II meetings such as the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, were listed as notable examples of UK-Arctic multilateral cooperation. Mention was also made of the presence of Scotland at the Arctic Circle conference, and plans unveiled last year for a separate Scottish Arctic strategy. The First Minister of Scotland, (and prominent Brexit critic), Nicola Sturgeon, was a keynote speaker [video] at the last two Arctic Circle events, and has been supportive of closer Scottish relations with Arctic governments.
Second, the report explained the need for protection and sustainable development of the region in the wake of climate change and other challenges. The document illustrated the effects of climate change on ice erosion, which is at risk of ‘Arctic amplification’ as more greenhouse gases are released in the circumpolar regions. Here, cooperation is also viewed as essential, but there were also descriptions of London’s own efforts to combat carbon emissions, with an eye on the situation in the Arctic as well as globally.
The Theresa May government had released an updated environmental policy statement [pdf], entitled ‘A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, in January this year which underscored these points. The Arctic document also noted the British government’s regret about the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, but that there were still opportunities for US-UK engagement on green issues. Other specific areas of environmental threats in the Arctic on which the UK wished to focus included conservation of marine regions, (such as the threat of marine litter, and especially plastic debris), air pollution, and protection of Arctic wildlife including bird populations.
Included in the second section were two policy areas that were given much less scope in the 2013 UK Arctic paper, namely security and safety matters in the region. The Arctic Council, while confimed as not being an organisation dedicated to security policy, was nonetheless pointed to as an important tool in strengthening cooperation activities.
In matters of hard security, the paper stated that while the Arctic states had the right to defend their interests in the far north, ‘the build-up of Arctic military capabilities by several Arctic States makes the future less certain.’ Russia was not specifically mentioned, but given the rapidly deteriorating relationship between London in the wake of the Russian spy poisoning incident in March this year, and regional concerns about the ongoing transfer of military forces and materiel to Russia’s Arctic regions by the Vladimir Putin government, it was obvious which government was being pointed to.
NATO was seen in the document as being a ‘central plank’ for regional cooperation, but the paper also specified the role of cooperation for building civilian safety mechanisms in the Arctic given the increase in maritime traffic and the sparse distribution of search and rescue operations in the region at present. The inclusion of security and safety issues into the UK paper is very much in line with emerging regional concerns about both areas.
Third, the document outlined the promotion of regional prosperity as well as providing opportunities for British economic interests in the Arctic, including the need for growing economic activity to be cognisant of environmental conditions in the far north. Key regional developing economic activities included shipping through emerging sea routes, including as conduits for European trade with the Asian markets, as well as fishing and fossil fuels. Local energy initiatives included the development of tidal power, with a pilot project in the northern British islands of Orkney seen as a test case for potential expanded power generation via wind and wave power in the Arctic. Non-resource sectors, including the development of transportation links and broadband, along with financial services designed to assist in region-specific development projects, were listed as important areas of emerging British cooperation.
As the Brexit process continues, it has been a priority for the May administration to promote the emerging new international relations priorities of the UK as the complicated separation process from the European Union continues, albeit with many bumps and scrapes. The Arctic is growing as a foreign policy priority for London, given geography and the growing global attention the circumpolar north is receiving not only from Europe but many other parts of the world. This issue may be part of the larger question of how overall scientific cooperation between Britain and the European Union will be affected by the Brexit divorce.
Thus, there is the question of whether Britain will seek to more directly differentiate itself from its European neighbours in crafting its emerging Arctic policy, or will EU cooperation be seen as beneficial, (and potentially necessary), given the growing number of non-Arctic states seeking to build their own regional identities and policies.
As the parliamentary elections in Greenland get underway, with the vote confirmed for 24 April, domestic issues have continued to dominate the campaigns thus far. However, the election has also demonstrated that Greenland has begun to develop a foreign policy which sometimes moves away from that of Denmark. As a new article, written by the editor and Mingming Shi for the Asia news service The Diplomat, argues, China has increased its diplomatic visibility in Greenland at the same time as the island has taken on a greater role in Beijing’s evolving Arctic policies, especially since the Arctic Ocean was officially added to the Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路 ) trade initiative last year.
This article looks at growing economic relationship between Beijing and Nuuk, most visibly in the area of resource extraction, but also in other emerging areas including infrastructure and potentially tourism. As the relationship between Greenland and Denmark becomes more complex as foreign interests in the former grow, how will China factor into Greenland’s future economic interests, as well as the omnipresent issue of potential Greenlandic independence?
With little fanfare, or surprise, it was announced this month that Russian President Vladimir Putin had easily achieved victory in the first round of presidential elections held this year. With more than 76% of the vote, the Russian leader was given a mandate to govern the Russian Federation for another six years, (or possibly longer).
This campaign unfolded as relations with the United States remained frosty, and diplomatic ties with Great Britain reached new lows over the alleged poisoning of a former Russian intelligence official in the UK earlier this month. Domestically, Russia continues to face numerous economic challenges as Western-backed sanctions, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea and ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine, show no sign of being lifted. However, there are also recent signs that the worst of the economic downturn may be easing, as Russia’s GDP reportedly grew by 1.5 percent in 2017. There is now, however, the question of future roles to be played in the Russian Arctic regions given their growing visibility in the country’s domestic affairs and strategic thinking.
Before 2014, there was much optimism that fossil fuels, especially with new sources to be tapped in Siberia, would provide a windfall for the Russian economy. The ‘double trouble’ created by the post-Ukraine sanctions and the drop in global oil and gas prices may have tempered expectations, but did little to diminish the importance of the Arctic region to the country’s energy sector. Experimental drilling began in the Laptev Sea off Siberia, in April last year, with initial results showing promise in regards to oil deposits, according to a statement [In Russian] by the energy firm Rosneft. With Western energy partners still lacking, (this month, the US firm Exxon Mobil announced that it was withdrawing from some Russian energy projects, citing the sanctions), there is much optimism about emerging energy partnerships with China.
Sino-Russian initiatives connected to a possible ‘Ice Silk Road’ in development such as the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project and associated gas pipelines to Chinese markets, are seen as strong potential contributors to the Russian Arctic economy. It was likely not a coincidence that the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, where the LNG facilities are based, gave overwhelming support for Mr Putin at the ballot box, with figures suggesting he won over 85% of the votes there. While in nearby Sabetta, on the Yamal Peninsula, the figure was reportedly 95%. Russia’s drive to develop Arctic fossil fuels has also caught the attention of next-door Norway, which has recently called for an acceleration of its own oil and gas surveys in light of potential competition from Moscow.
The potential of Arctic shipping north of Siberia has also been recognised as an economic priority, as the Russian government is hopeful the melting ice cap will open the door to growing numbers of Russian, and also potentially Chinese, Japanese and other Asia-based cargo vessels transiting between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Russian president vowed during his campaign that Arctic shipping would ‘increase tenfold’ by 2025. While the Northern Sea Route has been touted as an emerging alternative for maritime shipping to the Indian Ocean passages, it remains to be seen when conditions will allow for mass shipping. The majority of this route lies in Russian waters, and Moscow has made it a priority to better monitor the region in anticipation of greater local and foreign traffic.
The growing importance of resources in the Russian Far East and Siberia has also prompted dialogue, and many governmental promises, about security in these regions. In campaign speeches, President Putin stressed the need to protect Russian sovereignty in the far north while not threatening its northern neighbours. These promises were made at a time when other countries were also augmenting their Arctic security policies.
This month, the American Navy engaged in submarine exercises under the Arctic ice, with a British submarine, HMS Trenchant, joining the simulation and becoming the first such UK vessel to enter the Arctic in a decade. These manoeuvres were viewed as a partial response to Russia’s ongoing transfer of military resources to its northern territories. For example, in September 2017, the nuclear icebreaker Sibir, the largest ship of its type, was successfully launched, complementing Russia’s icebreaking fleet of over forty vessels. Putin had argued that Russian icebreakers, especially nuclear-powered vessels, were a crucial component in ensuring the country’s Arctic sovereignty.
Russian relations with Canada have also been difficult since the Ukraine crises, and these differences have on occasion spilled over into the Arctic. Russia and Canada, (along with Denmark), have made competing claims to the Lomonosov Ridge region of the central Arctic. Russian officials noted this month Ottawa would likely forward to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) a revised claim to the region, late this year or early next. After Putin’s re-election was confirmed, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa sharply criticised the Justin Trudeau government for critical comments following the Ukraine vote as well as the British poisoning incident, saying that such a stance might affect future Arctic cooperation. Mr Trudeau also declined, (unlike his American counterpart), to congratulate President Putin on his election win.
Assuming that Mr Putin’s upcoming term does indeed mark his last as Russian president, it is certain that the Arctic regions will form a significant part of Moscow’s strategic and economic plans for the next half-dozen years. How Russia’s ambitious Arctic development plans will come about, and what the effects on the whole of the region will be remain open questions. The answers will also be tied to both domestic politics and how Russia is able to navigate difficult relations with many of its circumpolar northern neighbours.