Arctic News Roundup: 23-29 March

Mountains near Akureyri, Iceland [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor at OtC, published a descriptive article about the growing foreign relations of Greenland, in light of the news reported last month on the further ambitions of Nuuk to open a representation office in China in the future. Despite its status as an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark, Nuuk has established four of its own representative offices abroad, namely in Copenhagen, Brussels, Washington DC, and the most recent one in Reykjavík.

2) CBC News, based in Canada, introduced some cuisine culture via inhabitants living in Northern Canada during the COVID-19 quarantine. Some citizens shared their recipes of home cooking with local harvest ingredients, including rabbit stew, fish pie, pumpkin bread, and other regional delicacies.

3) The Arctic Science Summit Week, which this year was supposed to be held in Akureyri, Iceland last week, was instead held online from 27th March to 2nd April. The topics of the conference, panels covered a wide gamut of subjects such as pollution and litter in the Arctic Ocean, facets of the maritime ecological system, human security, and specific regional research projects.

4) Two airports in Iceland, including one in Akureyri and one in Egilsstaðir, are set to be expanded, in order to adjust to anticipated larger transportation volumes in the future, and to fuel the Icelandic economy in the long run, according to the Iceland Review.

Greenland’s Widening World

Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen (l) and former Iceland President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson speaking at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík, October 2019 [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

With plans in the works for more than a year, it was announced [in Danish] this week by the Government of Greenland that it was moving forward with the idea of establishing a representative office in China, with a confirmation to be made by the country’s parliament (Inatsisartut) at some point this spring.

The decision reflects the growing economic links between Nuuk and Beijing as well as Greenlandic interests in expanding its foreign policies beyond the immediate Northern European region. Should Greenland’s plan go forward this year, it will be a significant step in the ongoing expansion of Greenland’s foreign policy interests, at a time when the country has been under international scrutiny at levels not seen since the cold war.

Much of this global attention has centred on the island’s resource potential, particularly as a result of the continuous melting of both the Greenland Ice Sheet and surrounding sea ice. However, the importance of Greenland, (population 57,000), is also increasingly noted by many countries, including the US and China, given its location between North America and Russia. This was a major factor in Danish and American interests in Greenland during the last century, since the island acted as an ideal ‘watchtower’ facing the Soviet Union, (as well as the site of an ill-fated attempt by the United States to add additional Arctic missile emplacements during the 1960s). Although it originally diminished in US strategic importance after the collapse of the USSR, the role of the US-operated Thule Air Force Base has been revived in American policy thinking as Russian-Western relations in the Arctic continue to falter.

Discussion last year by the United States government about the possibility [pdf] of ‘purchasing’ Greenland, sophomoric though the idea was, nonetheless represented the most visible sign to date of the island moving away from the political and strategic periphery. Yet while the US, along with the entire international community, has begun to look at Greenland more closely, the opposite is also taking place as Nuuk seeks distance its foreign policy identity from the Danish Kingdom.

At first glance the question of defining Greenlandic foreign policy appears to be free of ambiguity. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but under the terms of the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf] between Copenhagen and Nuuk, several government portfolios were to be transferred to Greenlandic oversight, with Denmark retaining jurisdiction over both foreign affairs and defence. However, that stipulation is far more concise on paper than in practice, given that in the past few years Greenland has been able to slowly but steadily increase its international affairs capabilities.

Moreover, even before the Self-Rule Agreement was codified, there had been precedent for the granting of greater ‘space’ for Greenland to develop its own foreign policy thinking, with one prominent example being the May 2003 Itilleq Declaration (Itilleqerklæringen), which confirmed [in Danish] that the Greenlandic government should be given a say in policies relating to the upgrading of American defences on the island, adding that in matters relating specifically to foreign and security issues involving the island, ‘it is natural for Greenland to be involved,’ in the decision-making processes, with Denmark’s blessing.

As well, Greenland established a representative office in Brussels in 1992 to act as a liaison mechanism with the European Union, (Greenland had withdrawn [pdf] from the then-European Communities in 1985). A similar office was opened in Washington DC in 2014 to oversee North American cooperation, and in 2018 a Greenland representation office in Reykjavík was established. Late last year, in further recognition of the growing importance of Greenland to US policy, plans were announced to reopen the American consulate in Nuuk during 2020.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Greenland’s diplomacy within the Arctic itself has also been on the rise, and the country was highly visible at the Reykjavík Arctic Circle conference in October last year, in part to take advantage of the global spotlight. However, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands, are still represented at the Arctic Council via the Kingdom of Denmark, which has been an issue for more pro-independence politicians in Nuuk. For example, then-Greenlandic Premier Aleqa Hammond boycotted the Council’s Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013 over what she considered an unfair arrangement which prevented Greenland from exercising direct voting rights in the organisation.

However, Greenland suspended its boycott of the Council in August that year, and since that time, there have been steps taken to include Nuuk more directly in relevant Council affairs. As Greenland’s Premier Kim Kielsen stated at the October 2019 Arctic Circle event, ‘Whenever the Arctic is discussed within the Realm, Greenland always plays a central role. Thus we are of the conviction that it should be natural for Greenland to occupy a permanent seat in the Danish delegation to the Arctic Council.’

As the Greenland government’s most recent Foreign Policy Report / Udenrigspolitiske Redegørelser (2019) stated [pdf, in Danish], the country is facing exciting opportunities but also challenging developments, with the document describing priority issues in foreign relations including improved relations with Washington, the development of new transportation links by air and sea, (including the expansion of Greenland’s airport facilities), the expansion of Greenlandic fishing markets in Asia, and improved relations with both the European Union and the post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Many of these issues are likely now overshadowed by the challenges [in Danish] created by the COVID-19 pandemic, (at the time of writing, ten cases had been confirmed in the country). On 18 March, almost all air traffic to the island was halted, with exceptions including an ‘air bridge’ recently established between Copenhagen and Nuuk in order to maintain a supply line between the two countries, involving periodic flights using an Air Greenland turboprop plane.

There is also the question of the degree to which the island’s economy and trade, including Greenland’s omnipresent seafood sector, will be affected by the current situation. Despite the current atmosphere of uncertainty, however, it is evident that Greenland will continue to seek greater international opportunities via the expansion of its foreign policy connections, including in East Asia should the proposed China office come to fruition.

Arctic News Roundup: 16-22 March

[Photo via Pixabay]
by Mingming Shi

1) Heiðrún Lind Marteinsdóttir, the Managing Director of Fisheries Iceland, the association of companies in the country’s fishery industry, (Samtaka fyrirtækja í sjávarútvegi in Icelandic), expressed her concerns over the current situation and future of exports of fresh fishery harvests from the country, in an interview with RÚV. Given the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading around the world, including in Europe, where numerous restaurants are closed, it is difficult for Iceland, one of the prominent marine products sources in the world, to maintain its fisheries market abroad. However, she also noted that stakeholders in Icelandic fishing industries have been endeavouring to adapt to the challenge, including freezing their harvest for other future sales.

2) This week, CBC News, a Canada-based news agency, revealed some historical background information about an expedition to the North Pole by a group of scientists in 1983. The main task of the exploration mission was to research the Alpha Ridge, a formation beneath the Arctic Ocean. The expedition was not merely for the scientific purposes, since what was then the Soviet Union was also interested in the region.

3) The Barents Observer reported the tough grazing conditions for reindeer in the Arctic regions due to climate change. Volumes of snowfall on the already frozen ground this winter, along with other natural conditions, had made food more difficult to reach for animals, including reindeer, in the high North.

4) Both the energy firm ConocoPhillips and Oil Search Ltd. have announced an expenditure reduction on oil exploitation projects in Alaska, considering that the prices of oil have experienced a sharp decline globally, according to CBC News.

5) Chinese Policy and Presence in the Arctic, a new book with the theme of China-Arctic relations, has been published. This new academic volume, edited by Timo Koivurova and Sanna Kopra, consists of research from a number of leading specialists on China and the Arctic, including Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor of OtC. The book presents the historic timeline China’s engagement in the Arctic, the polar strategies of the country and the future trends of its regional presence. The book also includes a special chapter on the relationship between China and Finland in regards to Arctic affairs.

Arctic News Roundup: 9-15 March

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and her cabinet have agreed to adopt specific economic measures to ease the damage to tourism and related sectors due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. The relief package includes the granting of some affected companies a postponement of tax payments, according to RÚV.

2) Live Science reported on one of the latest studies from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about ice melting in the Polar Regions, namely Antarctica and primarily Greenland, which have witnessed a volume of ice loss which since the 1990s has increased sixfold. Greenland, the biggest island in the world located in the high North, has the second-largest ice sheet next to the Antarctic.

3) The Nordic countries are preparing a more active response to the COVID-19 crisis, and according to the AFP / The Local Norway, the situation in the region has differed somewhat from other parts of the world.

The Twists and Turns of the Polar Silk Road

Huawei office in Oslo [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

Over the past five years, China has been seeking to place its own diplomatic and economic stamp on the Arctic, via what has, since 2018, been frequently referred to as the ‘Ice’ or ‘Polar Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路), or PSR. The foundation of this ‘road’ was to be the development of enhanced maritime trade through an (increasingly ice-free) Arctic Ocean, as well as associated infrastructure and other offshoot projects.

Two years later, it can be argued that while some components of the PSR are successfully operational, others remain firmly relegated to the drafting board. The successes and delays of the PSR can be determined not only by looking at the finances and logistics of its various components, but also the considerable differences in political thinking among the potential Arctic states which may or may not be forming the building blocks for this northern road.

In the first few years since the government of China announced the initial steps in 2013 of building what would eventually be known as the Belt and Road Initiative, (yidai yilu changyi 一带一路 倡议), or BRI, there was little doubt that, as the Arctic began to experience climate change and ice erosion, international commerce would be increased. This included shipping and resource extraction and the far north would eventually be added alongside Africa, Europe and Eurasia as a key component of the network of trade routes and enhanced economic partnerships Beijing was seeking to develop.

As China began to quietly construct its Arctic diplomatic policies, following the country being granted formal observer status in 2013, speculation grew as to when Beijing would formally announce its interest in creating a northern tier for the BRI. Until a few years ago, China appeared to be taking a ‘watch and wait’ approach to linking the Arctic with the Belt and Road, especially since there were many other parts of the world which were a priority for Beijing’s economic diplomacy via the BRI, (at present, more than 130 governments, along with thirty organisations, have signed some sort of Belt and Road agreement with Beijing).

The first official sign that the Arctic was going to be added to the BRI repertoire arrived via a low-key policy document co-published in June 2017 by the then-State Oceanic Administration (SOA), and the National Development and Reform Commission, (the SOA was folded into the newly-created Ministry of Natural Resources in early 2018). The paper, entitled ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative’, noted three specific ‘blue economic passages’ (lanse jingji tongdao 蓝色经济通道) essential for future BRI Chinese maritime trade. These were the Indian Ocean-Mediterranean route, the Oceania-South Pacific route, and the Arctic Ocean, although the means by which the Arctic would be added to the BRI was not specified at the time.

As an August 2019 report by the Chinese Institute of International Studies (CIIS) elaborated [in Chinese], not only did the Arctic ‘blue economic passage’ represent an emerging and potentially lucrative maritime shipping route, but also offered potential access to specific goods from Arctic states, notably in the Nordic region, in the areas of renewable energy and green technologies.

Further clarity as to how the PSR would fit within the greater Belt and Road network was provided in January the following year with the release of Beijing’s White Paper on Arctic policy. In addition to outlining specific scientific and economic interests Beijing was seeking to develop in the far north, the paper also stated that:

China hopes to work with all parties to build a “Polar Silk Road” through developing the Arctic shipping routes. It encourages its enterprises to participate in the infrastructure construction for these routes and conduct commercial trial voyages in accordance with the law to pave the way for their commercial and regularized operation.’

As the Polar Silk Road continues to be developed, it is apparent that what China is seeking is similar to other strands of the greater BRI, including an expansion of markets for Chinese goods, investments and technology, as well as enhanced diplomatic ties with major regional governments. By far the most prominent benefactor of PSR policies has been Russia, due to both its geography, as the shortest Arctic sea route between China and Europe lies north of Siberia, and various types of economic-political cooperation. Moreover, it may be argued much to growing American consternation, that the Arctic is evolving as a major nexus of Sino-American cooperation.

Most of the economic agreements relating to the PSR between China and Russia have been in the energy sector, with the Yamal Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project, overseen by the Russian firm Novatek (НОВАТЭК), in western Siberia acting as the crown jewel of this cooperation. The China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) holds a twenty percent stake in the project, with China’s Silk Road Fund acquiring 9.9 percent.

In April 2019, the CNPC agreed to a ten percent stake in a successor operation, ‘Arctic LNG 2’, with an announcement made in January this year that the Shanghai firm Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding (沪东中华造船) was hoping to build LNG-carrying icebreaking vessels which would be attached to the Arctic LNG 2 project. Beyond energy, there has also been Chinese interest in potential Russian Arctic infrastructure projects, including a June 2018 bilateral investment deal which could be used to underwrite various initiatives attached to the PSR. However, the situation with the COVID-19 virus, and the related closure of the Sino-Russian border in the last month, may complicate new Arctic cooperation, at least in the short-term.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the ceremony marking the loading of the first LNG tanker from the Yamal facilities, December 2017 [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
The results of the PSR outside of Russia have been mixed. One issue is that Moscow remains the only government amongst the ‘Arctic Eight’ to have formally signed on to the Belt and Road in its entirety. The chances of the United States, especially under its current government, aligning with the BRI are nonexistent, and American attempts to create an alternative to the Belt and Road have so far been long on grandiloquence and short on details or actions. Ongoing Chinese diplomatic strains with both Canada and Sweden have precluded any possibilities of either government signing on the Belt and Road in the near future. Other Arctic states, such as Finland and Iceland, have been more neutral on the subject, while seeking to maintain strong bilateral relations with Beijing.

PSR-related cooperation with Norway was greatly hampered by the six-year diplomatic break between Beijing and Oslo due to the 2010 Nobel Prize incident, but since that time there have been occasions of PSR cooperation. For example in December of last year, the Halogaland Bridge outside of the northern Norwegian town of Narvik was officially opened. The span had been constructed by the Chengdu-based Sichuan Road and Bridge Group (四川公路桥染建设集团).

Other potential Chinese investments in Nordic infrastructure projects are far less certain, including the long-touted Arctic Corridor railway connection between Kirkenes in Norway and Rovaniemi in Finland which could in theory link to Russian, Chinese and other European rail lines. Reactions by both Helsinki and Oslo have been tepid at best about the rail line, and the prospect of Chinese investment.

As well, this month Sámi representatives from Finland and Norway sought to issue a solid veto against the railway, arguing that it would irreparably damage traditional reindeer herding lands. Nonetheless, local politicians, including in Kirkenes, continue to support the project as means of opening up the Nordic-Arctic region to increased investment, including from China. At present, the Arctic Corridor appears to be the Schrodinger’s Cat of regional infrastructure plans.

Another related endeavour to run into recent political headwinds is the Helsinki-Tallinn (Talsinki) tunnel project, which has also attracted Chinese investment interest. However, a February 2020 report [pdf] by the main intelligence agency in Estonia flashed a yellow light regarding both economic and strategic concerns about Chinese investment in the tunnel construction.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Finally, another offshoot of the PSR, which has been slowly taking shape over the past two years, is ‘Arctic Connect’, a proposed Arctic fibre-optic line which would stretch at least eighteen thousand kilometres between China and Northern Europe via the Siberian coast. In June 2019, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Finnish company Cinia and the Russian telecom firm MegaFon (МегаФон) to commence building of the undersea Arctic Ocean cable. In 2016, Cinia had approached China’s communications giant Huawei as a partner for a potential Asia-Europe communications link, and the following year it was reported that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and China Telecom had expressed interest in supporting the project.

Then, in July of last year, under American pressure, Huawei agreed to sell off its undersea cable division, Huawei Marine, the same subsidiary which was active as a partner to Cinia in the Arctic cable project. By the end of last year, the Chinese cable firm Hengtong Group (亨通集团), based in Suzhou, was cited as a potential buyer for Huawei Marine, which would affirm that Chinese interests would remain engaged in the cable’s construction, and potentially place this project within Beijing’s proposed ‘Digital Silk Road’ (shizi sichouzi lu 数字丝绸之路) wing of the BRI. However, in a comprehensive policy paper published last week via the Sinopsis project, it was argued that Chinese investment in the cable presented security risks in the form of over-reliance on a single provider, the possibility of wiretapping/illicit monitoring, and dual-use (civilian/military) potential of the link.

Despite these setbacks, the Polar Silk Road policies are likely to continue, with maritime transport being at the centre of China’s PSR interests. The question now is whether Beijing will be able to navigate both the economic diplomacy required to continue to build this ice road while also being aware of political storms appearing in the far north as overall Chinese Arctic interests continue to widen and deepen.