Arctic Politics in 2018: A Look Ahead

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

This past year saw several political events, from a variety of directions, which directly affected the Arctic. As the circumpolar north continues to attract greater global attention for environmental, economic and strategic reasons, the region will continue its transformation, for better or for worse, from a ‘peripheral’ part of the world to one which will be much more central to many nations’ foreign interests. At the same time, however, climate change is continuing to greatly affect the region, as the recently published Arctic Report Card for 2017 warned at length.

From an institutional viewpoint, the Arctic Council will continue to be chaired by Finland until 2019, with Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) meetings scheduled to take place in Rovaniemi in October 2018, as well as various issue-specific and Working Group events during the coming year. While environmental and social issues will likely dominate upcoming Council dialogues, political issues, including the omnipresent question of observers, will not be far from the agenda, especially given the still-frigid relationship between Russia and the West. Despite tacit concerns from some of the eight Council members about allowing in too many observers until their roles could be more fully developed, 2017 saw a single state, Switzerland, slip through the narrow doorway and be accepted. As well, six non-governmental organisations, including the World Meteorological Foundation, the National Geographic Society and the West Nordic Council [In Icelandic], also became observers in the Council this year.

However, other prospective formal observers will be getting ready for the possible next round of admissions in 2019, including maybe from previous applicants Greece, Mongolia, Turkey, and perpetual also-ran the European Union. The debate about how the Arctic Council will reconcile the growing number of non-Arctic governments seeking a greater role in the region’s development will not be abating any point soon, which is a challenge both for the institution itself but also for the eight Arctic states. Some of the Arctic eight are seeking to update their Arctic policies in the New Year, including for example the upcoming Arctic Policy Framework currently being prepared by the Justin Trudeau government in Ottawa.

On the Track II (sub-governmental) level, the Arctic Circle conference will hold its sixth annual conference in Reykjavík in October, with a breakout forum planned for Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, in May, while Arctic Frontiers will be holding its 2018 conference in Tromsø in January with the theme of ‘Connecting the Arctic’. In addition, the annual Arctic Science Summit Week will be held, as part of the larger ‘Polar 2018’ events, (including the Scientific Community on Antarctic Research/SCAR), in Davos, Switzerland in June.

Among the Arctic states, it can easily be argued that Russia dominated much of the policies in the region over the past year and will continue to do so in 2018, bolstered both by numerous development projects, especially in the area of fossil fuels and the shipping potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), as well as Moscow’s ongoing endeavours to re-militarise its Arctic lands. The growing prominence of Siberia and other parts of the Russian far north reflect growing concerns from the Vladimir Putin government about these areas’ economic importance as well as the possibility of the NSR being used as an alternative maritime transit route in the coming decades; (meanwhile, Mr Putin himself faces an election in March 2018).

Russian icebreaker construction stands to progress at a strong clip, with one of the country’s most powerful nuclear icebreaking vessels, the Sibir, launched in September 2017 and its sister ship, the Arktika, being prepared for formal commissioning in 2019. Also, the growing Russian securitisation of its portion of the Arctic has caused worries both in the United States and in the bordering Nordic regions, (including non-NATO members Finland and Sweden).

As of the start of this month, Russia reported twenty-eight vessels making use of the NSR since the start of 2017, up from nineteen [pdf] in the previous year. With signs that the sea route may be more easily traversed in the coming years due to regional ice erosion, there is much enthusiasm in Russian policy circles that the route may become a secondary means of sea cargo transit between Asia and Europe.

The NSR region is also being developed as a major source of fossil fuels for export, with the most visible of these projects being the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Project, overseen by the Russian firm Novotek and was formally opened by President Putin earlier this month with the first gas shipments being loaded onto the new Russian cargo vessel Christophe de Margerie for transit to Asia, (albeit with a detour to the UK). Should energy prices begun to recover in the new year, Moscow may continue to depend on its polar regions as a hedge against ongoing international sanctions from the West.

US policies in the Arctic during the first year of the Donald Trump administration, as with other parts of the world, were erratic at best. In June 2017, the United States withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords, (becoming the only country to remain outside of the agreement after Syria agreed to sign on in November this year), and overturned bans on oil and gas exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a decision which is likely to be contested in the coming year, perhaps in the midst of the midterm elections. As well, the American president continued to express disbelief that climate change was an actual phenomenon, and there was no mention of climate change in the US government’s latest National Security Strategy [pdf] paper.

However, the United States did support the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed at the Fairbanks Arctic Council Ministerial in May this year, as well as a pact finalised in Washington DC to ban fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean. It is an open question however as to where American Arctic policies will go in the new year, although there have been signs of growing US concern about losing ground to Russia (and China) in the Arctic.

nordic house flags
Flags at Nordic House, Reykjavík (Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Other governments in the far north are also facing difficult political questions in the new year. The relationship between Greenland and Denmark continues to be complicated as new Greenlandic mining projects begin to take shape, including the Kvanefjeld rare earth elements and uranium extraction project, and the formal opening of the Aappaluttoq ruby mine on the island in May of this year. Other initiatives, including a potential zinc mine planned for the far northern part of the island, may commence with Chinese financial support. Although it may be many years before mining significantly effects Greenland’s GDP, which at present is dominated by fishing as well as an annual stipend from Copenhagen, the possibility of a ‘resource boom’ in Greenland, especially as more of the island’s vast ice sheet continues to erode, will have both domestic political effects and further complicate relations with Denmark.

This month, the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) published its annual risk assessment [pdf] document, which included caveats about foreign, and primarily Chinese, investment in Greenland, noting that large-scale investments may place added pressure on the small Greenlandic economy. Elsewhere in the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands is expected to hold a constitutional referendum in April of next year, which might pave the way for greater autonomy or even independence from Denmark.

In other parts of the Nordic region, Iceland is hoping for a long-awaited period of political stability in the wake of its October elections, but questions over tourism and the direction of the country’s economy will likely persist in the new year. In Norway, the government is preparing to merge its two northernmost Arctic counties, Finnmark and Troms, with the process expected to be completed by 2020, and Oslo, despite some opposition, is hoping to accelerate oil surveys of the Barents Sea region in 2018. After years of debate about improving transportation options in the Nordic Arctic, talks regarding a possible rail link between Rovaniemi, Finland and Kirkenes, Norway, which might link up to tracks in Russia and perhaps even China, commenced in late 2017.

Non-Arctic states will continue to rise in prominence in far northern affairs in the new year. China will be taking the lead, especially as a result of the Arctic being formally added to the country’s widening and deepening Belt and Road trade initiatives, worth in total between US$900 billion and $1 trillion as of June 2017. Specifics about exactly where the Arctic will fit within these growing trade routes and partnerships may appear in the new year, especially if Beijing finally releases its long-awaited governmental white paper on the Arctic to match the policy document on Antarctica released earlier this year.

Scientific diplomacy continues to be a mainstay of much of Beijing’s Arctic policy. The joint Chinese-Iceland aurora observatory is expected to fully open by the end of 2018, and at the 2017 Arctic Circle conference, Chinese researchers also suggested that the country was interested in building a second Arctic research facility, (the first being in Svalbard), in Greenland.

However, Beijing has focussed more overtly on the economic side of its Arctic engagement, a pattern likely to continue into 2018. Chinese financial institutions are major backers of the Yamal project, as well as Greenland mining projects and ongoing cooperation with Iceland and Norway in fossil fuel surveys in the Dreki region of the North Atlantic, with Chinese interests potentially underwriting natural gas development in Alaska. Beijing has also expressed great interest in sending more cargo vessels through the NSR on a more regular basis, and potentially co-developing infrastructure in the Russian Arctic as part of an emerging ‘Ice Silk Road’ infrastructure. This may also include the construction of a fibre-optic cable system, which would connect China with Finland via Siberia.

Beijing has also made use of free trade diplomacy in the Arctic in recent years and will likely further develop that process in 2018. The coming year will mark the fifth anniversary of China’s free trade agreement (FTA) with Iceland, and after a six-year hiatus due to the Nobel Prize dispute in 2010, FTA talks between Oslo and Beijing have restarted, with further negotiations scheduled for early next year in Norway. Preliminary free trade discussions have also commenced between Canada and China, but the timetable for formal talks remains uncertain. However, China’s major Arctic economic partner will undoubtedly remain the Russian Federation, and Moscow will likely continue to depend on Chinese assistance with all sorts of development projects in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Other governments in Asia are also developing their own Arctic agendas. In the middle of 2017, the governments of China, Japan and South Korea took further steps to develop joint scientific research in the Arctic, with follow-up talks scheduled to take place in China this coming year. Both Japan and Korea are also upbeat about the possibility of greater use of the NSR for cargo shipping, and this month the Korea Shipowners’ Association became the first company from a non-Arctic country to join the Arctic Economic Council, with more East Asian firms likely to follow suit. Other Asian states, including Arctic Council observers India and Singapore, will also be watching the Arctic for its economic possibilities.

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

Before signing off, the editor would like to thank everyone who helped launch this site in September, and to wish everyone a very Happy New Year / Bonne Année / ᐅᑭᐅᒥ ᓄᑖᒥ ᖁᕕᐊᓱᒋᑦᓯ!