The Arctic in 2019: Security in the Spotlight

Sunrise over Oslo, Norway [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Arguably the two most prominent stories about the Arctic region this year were related to security, albeit from two completely different directions. On one end of the spectrum, new reports published this year about the state of global climate change further underscored the looming threats to the Arctic’s environment. The study released in October by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that the planet might reach its threshold level of a 1.5ºC increase in temperature as early as 2030. This was followed up in December by the ‘Arctic Report Card’, issued by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), (note: the organisation’s website is currently offline due to the US government shutdown).

The NOAA report examined record low levels of sea ice in parts of the Arctic including the Bering Sea region, as well as ongoing thinning of older ice sheets, rising regional air temperatures, and the growing problem of plastic debris in the Arctic Ocean. The United States government also released its own survey of climate change effects in November. However the report was swiftly dismissed by US President Donald Trump, who had been on record many times as being an unapologetic climate change denier, thus calling into question whether Washington would be in any position to continue to advocate for greater global environmental responsibility in the coming year.

Moving from environmental to military security, the question of whether the Arctic will become an arena for hard power competition will likely persist next year in the wake of ongoing cold relations between Russia and the West and ongoing endeavours by Moscow to more fully secure its Arctic lands as well as the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Right before Christmas, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that his country’s Arctic military infrastructure was unparalleled, pointing to the number of facilities which were either re-established or in the process of refurbishment, including in Franz Josef Land, Cape Schmidt and the Kuril Islands. The minister added that further military build-ups in the region were planned for 2019, including in the area of air defence.

Moscow officials also confirmed that next year’s Russian military exercises [In Russian], ‘Tsentr-2019’ (Центр-2019) would feature manoeuvres in the NSR region, emphasising the growing importance of the Russian Arctic to the country’s evolving military strategies. The announcement comes on the heels of NATO’s ‘Trident Junction’ exercises which took place in October-November of this year, hosted by Norway with the participation of non-NATO members Finland and Sweden. These events have placed strains on the conventional wisdom of the Arctic being ‘high north, low tension’.

The government of Vladimir Putin has been exuberant about the growing potential of the NSR for Russia as the waterway becomes easier to navigate in summer months, especially in the wake of the successful transit through the waterway of the Danish container vessel Venta Maersk in September this year. Yet, there remains the question of whether Russia under extensive Western sanctions can develop its Arctic infrastructure without outside assistance.

Andrei Denisov, Russia’s Ambassador to Beijing, recently remarked that China had the potential to be a major partner in his country’s Arctic economic policy, and noted in the past year that the Chinese government had made major strides in formalising its Arctic policy. This included the publication in 2018 of both a governmental White Paper and a Blue Book [In Chinese] on Arctic diplomacy. China’s presence in the Arctic continued to grow this year, including the launch of the country’s second icebreaking vessel, (with plans announced for a future nuclear-powered icebreaker), a notable presence at the October Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík and the opening of the Sino-Icelandic joint scientific research centre in northern Iceland.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Joint Arctic space observation facilities were also announced in April this year by the governments of China and Finland. Despite a setback in bidding for the contract to expand airport infrastructure in Greenland, Chinese economic interests on the island showed no signs of slowing down, illustrated in recent interest expressed by Chinese firms in bidding on future oil and gas exploration in Greenland.

While China’s overall Arctic diplomacy is expected to accelerate next year, there may be obstacles ahead in the form of a downturn in bilateral ties with some Arctic states, including Canada and Sweden, over the past few months. Chief among these has been the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington as economic disputes devolved into a more intense ‘trade war’, with both parties engaging in reciprocal tariffs before a ninety-day cooling off period was announced in early December of this year. One of the economic casualties of the downturn in the Arctic could be the North Slope gas pipeline project in Alaska, which China had pledged financial support for in 2017.

The coming year will also see changes in the Arctic Council, with the chair passing from Finland to Iceland after the next Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) Ministerial meeting, to take place in May in Rovaniemi. Climate change is likely to be at the top of the list during the conference, and it is also probable that there will be another queue of potential observers hoping to follow in the footsteps of Switzerland and six non-governmental organisations which were able to obtain the status of formal observer at the last SAO in 2017. Within the Council’s membership, both Canada and the United States are expected to publish revised Arctic policies in the coming year, as well as observer nation South Korea.

Security, of many different types, is on track to continue to dominate Arctic affairs in 2019, but there is also the greater possibility of cooperation as understanding spreads about the connections between this once-isolated region and the rest of the world, as well as a change in thinking which suggests that the Arctic is becoming an international concern in addition to a regional one.

[The editor would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance in the preparation of this article.]