The Netherlands in the Arctic: Clear Skies and Choppy Waters

The Hague, Netherlands [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Among the growing list of non-Arctic states with extensive interests in the circumpolar north, the Netherlands stands out, not because of its size but rather due to its considerable contributions to the study of the region over a period of several centuries. In recent years, the country has begun to pay greater attention to the emerging economic benefits of the Arctic and especially to the shipping potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

With several countries, including large Asian economies as well as Western European governments, and of course Russia, developing plans to better utilise the NSR for expanded cross-regional shipping in the coming decades, the Netherlands is seeking to ensure its participation in a potential scramble to develop Arctic shipping routes. As with other non-Arctic states, Holland is seeking to construct a policy balance between supporting scientific diplomacy in the Arctic, while also being mindful of the growing economic opportunities appearing in the region.

The country is hardly a newcomer to the Arctic. Representatives of the Netherlands were present at the initial founding of the Arctic Council in 1996, with the country becoming a formal observer two years later at the organisation’s Ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Like its Western European neighbours, including Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland, Holland was able to point to a long history of polar exploration and research in justifying its distinct Arctic identity. Indeed, even a brief glance at the Netherlands’ engagement of the Far North is sufficient to confirm the country’s Arctic credentials.

One of the most famous European explorers of the Arctic, Willem Barentsz (c.1550-1597), hailed from the Dutch island of Terschelling. Like many other pioneers of the time, Barentsz, also distinguished as a cartographer and navigator, was interested in discovering a shorter sea route to Imperial China, and thought the waters north of Siberia might represent such a pathway. At the time, both England and Holland were looking to Arctic waters as a northeast passage to Asian markets. During Barentsz’s three Arctic Ocean voyages, the ships under his command explored the region around Nova Zemlya and the Kara Sea, and were lauded for the official discovery of the Svalbard Islands, including the main island of Spitsbergen, in 1596.

Map of the Arctic voyages of Willem Barentsz (1598) [Photo via Wikipedia]
Barentzs’ journeys were also credited with the first recorded instance of the ‘Novaya Zemlya Effect’. This is defined as a mirage seen in the polar regions which suggests a false sunrise, caused by the high refraction of sunlight between thermal layers of the atmosphere, and creating an illusion of the sun appearing as a squashed rectangle, with the rectangle itself sometimes appearing to be sliced into strips as part of the illusion. As well, the Barents Sea, which sits astride the Arctic maritime frontiers of Norway and Russia and was previously known as the Murman Sea, was named for him.

As part of its deepeningArctic policy, the Netherlands appointed its first Arctic Ambassador, Kees Rade, in 2016, and he was succeeded by Carola van Rijnsoever [In Dutch] in October of last year. Among the priorities [pdf] for the Dutch government in the Arctic have been the preservation of regional legal institutions, (including upholding the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea / UNCLOS), monitoring the effects of climate change, including on local fauna, and seeking out economic opportunities for the Netherlands and the greater European Union.

The country has also produced governmental policy papers on its Arctic policies, including a 2014 statement [pdf] from a committee chaired by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former Secretary General of NATO, which acknowledged the growing strategic importance of the circumpolar north, especially in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent security crisis in Eastern Ukraine, and concerns that deteriorating relations between Moscow and the West might spill over into the Arctic. However, the changing climate conditions in the Arctic were also seen as an opportunity for Dutch interests, especially for shipping interests. The Port of Rotterdam, the largest such facility in Europe, was noted in the 2014 report as potentially benefitting from emerging Arctic shipping as well as increased exporting of northern Russian oil and gas.

The current Arctic scientific policies of the Netherlands were outlined in the December 2014 ‘Pole Position – Strategy for the Netherlands Polar Programme 2016-2020statement published by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, based in the Hague. The report noted the opportunities for research in both the hard science areas of climate change as well as in social and economic areas. In April 2016, these pledges were enhanced by an announcement that the Dutch government would be contributing a budget of €4.1 million (US$4.7 million) for each year between 2016 and 2020 for research at both poles. The University of Groningen houses a dedicated multidisciplinary Arctic Centre with a specific focus on the interactions between regional ecosystems and human activity, and the Netherlands also maintains a research station at Kongsfjorden on the island of Spitsbergen, approximately 115 kilometres from Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard.

Dutch flag, the Hague [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Energy and shipping interests are also shaping Dutch Arctic interests, as in addition to the country’s port facilities, the country’s flagship oil and gas firm, Royal Dutch Shell, had also expressed interest in the Arctic Ocean. However, despite initial optimism about the fossil fuel prospects of the Arctic, by 2015 the firm had withdrawn from the region in the wake of disappointing initial findings, environmental pressures and depressed global energy prices.

There remain greater prospects for Dutch interests in Arctic shipping, especially since China identified the NSR last year as an emerging branch of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ trade route network. In mid-2013, China successfully sent its first cargo vessel, the Yongsheng (永盛), owned by China’s Cosco shipping firm, through the NSR from Dalian to arrive at the Rotterdam port in September of that year, and the Dutch facilities have been identified as a potential European hub for the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ which China is now hoping to construct and involving many regions, including the Arctic.

In October 2015, the Rotterdam Port Authority signed an agreement with the Bank of China to jointly develop investment and infrastructure opportunities. Cosco announced in May 2016 that one of its subsidiaries, Cosco Pacific, purchased a thirty-five percent stake of the Euromax Terminal at the Rotterdam Port, part of a larger trend of Chinese investment in European ports over the past few years. In October 2018, another modified Chinese cargo ship operated by Cosco, the Tian’en (天恩), specifically built for Arctic operations, docked in the Dutch port of Eemshaven en route to Sweden after crossing the NSR.

Debates in the Netherlands about closer economic cooperation with China, including in shipping, continue in the country. A February 2018 editorial via the Dutch research institute Clingendael suggested the Netherlands take a more active approach to cooperation with China via the new trade routes, but Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has argued that while the Belt and Road provides many opportunities for Holland and Europe as a whole, there must be improved space for foreign companies, including Dutch firms, to more fully participate in the construction of the trade routes.

Miniature ships and landmarks at Madurodam Park, the Hague [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In addition to China, Russia will also be a wild card in Holland’s developing Arctic policies. As with other NATO members, the Netherlands has become increasingly concerned about Moscow’s expanded military presence in the Arctic, and Dutch forces played a major role in the recent ‘Trident Juncture’ military manoeuvres in Northern Europe overseen by the alliance. Last month, a senior Dutch military official accused Russia of deliberately attempting to interfere with a joint UK-Netherlands exercise north of the Arctic Circle, and Russian nationals were detained by the Dutch government during the same month for allegedly seeking to carry out cyber-attacks on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a group which had been investigating the recent use of chemical agents in Britain against former Russian spies.

Nonetheless, Rotterdam remains a primary destination for Russian oil tankers, including the Prospekt Gagarina (Проспект Гагарина), the first of a new class of liquefied natural gas-powered vessels operated by the Russian firm Sovcomflot (Совкомфлот), arriving in Rotterdam [In Russian] late last month, with its sister ship, Prospekt Lomonosova (Проспект Ломоносова), currently en route to the Netherlands. As the strategic relationship between Russia and Western Europe continues to be difficult, this certainly will continue to factor into Holland’s developing Arctic engagement.