Although the Polar Silk Road (bingshang sichou zhilu 冰上丝绸之路), which has been in development since 2017 and has since been incorporated into the China’s greater Belt and Road Initiative, continues to be perceived as a challenge to the Arctic, in fact the PSR has experienced several obstacles in recent years.
In a new comment in The Diplomat by OtC editor Marc Lanteigne, it’s argued that due to a combination of Arctic regional politics and economic constraints, as well as additional pressures caused by the global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Polar Silk Road finds itself in uncertain times, and much more limited in scope than previous predictions suggested. Therefore, any discussion of China’s emerging Arctic interests must first take into account what the PSR has and has not accomplished at present.
The far north has long been considered a barometer for the measurement of global climate change, including via phenomenon such as higher average temperatures, wildfires at ever-higher latitudes, permafrost loss, and reduced ice coverage of the Arctic Ocean, as well as the melting ice sheet in Greenland.
This summer, however, has shaped up to be one of the most graphic illustrations to date about the effects of climate change around the world, starting with heat waves across East Asia (including China), Europe, North America, and South Asia. Record temperatures have placed strains on global energy grids as prices for fossil fuels have rebounded (albeit fitfully) due to post-pandemic demand and the effects of sanctions on Russia as a result of that country’s unlawful invasion of Ukraine.
Conventional wisdom had long maintained that the Arctic was warming at two to three times the international norm, resulting in the effects described above. However, a new open access article in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment has concluded that the amplification process in the circumpolar north has resulted in warming rates four times that of the global average since 1979. Moreover, the report suggested that previous examples of climate modelling in the Arctic were not sufficient in describing the overall warming processes.
The study comes on the heels of an article in another Nature publication, Scientific Reports, from this June which described the Barents region in the European Arctic as being especially affected by warming temperatures, potentially up to seven times that of the international average.
Specific examples of this phenomenon in northern Europe include record melt rates in Svalbard, affected by warmer air currents from the south. The island group is said to be experiencing a shift away from Arctic weather patterns and towards those consistent with more southernly parts of the Atlantic Ocean. Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister, Espen Barth Eide, who visited Svalbard earlier this month, called these new figures ‘dramatic’ [in Norwegian], and representing further proof of the accelerating pace of climate change in the far north.
Last month, it was also reported that Greenland experienced a spike in the loss of its own ice coverage, with eighteen tons of water spilling into the Atlantic-Arctic in the space of just three days. The island is finding itself back in the international spotlight as a result of climate change, as the loss of surrounding sea ice would make it easier for extractive industries to operate there.
While the Greenlandic government of Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede has placed environmental concerns high on the agenda, implementing green-friendly measures over the past year including suspending plans for a uranium and rare earths mine at Kuannersuit, and implementing a moratorium on oil and gas exploration, Greenland nonetheless remains attractive to outside actors for its mineral wealth.
The growing international demand for ‘critical minerals’, such as rare earths as well as cobalt, lithium, and nickel, for green technologies like electric vehicles, has been coupled with concerns about the stability of future supply lines for these minerals. A survey plan, spearheaded by KoBold Metals and the UK’s Bluejay Mining and backed by billionaire CEOs including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, has commenced in Greenland’s Disko Bay region in the hopes of finding rich deposits of these raw materials.
Mining remains a difficult subject in Greenland political circles, as the island continues to contemplate eventual independence from the Kingdom of Denmark, which would require a more diversified economy including potentially in the extractive industries sectors. Yet at the same time the mounting evidence of the effects of global warming in Greenland has raised alarms about the potential damage these industries could cause. Environmental politics are also likely to be on the agenda at the next Arctic Circle Forum meeting, to be held later this month in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk.
International cooperation on climate change, including in the Arctic, remains tenuous. The Arctic Council remains bifurcated with Russia’s ostracism from the organisation, and there is now discussion about about the other members of the organisation, now often called the ‘A-7‘, can continue to cooperate on environmental issues. As of yet, there is no announced plan to address the transfer of the chair position from Russia to Norway which is scheduled for May of next year.
After much delay, the United States belatedly passed sweeping legislation to address environmental concerns as part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Another US bill [pdf], recently organised by Senators Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska) and Angus King (I – Maine) would specifically focus on American Arctic policies including an assessment of the country’s regional research programmes along with improving US security and shipping activities in the far north and commencing free trade talks with Iceland.
However, despite the US’s attempts to return to global climate change dialogue, the suspension by Beijing this month of bilateral climate talks with Washington over Taiwan policies may create aftershocks in combatting environmental damage on the international level.
The warning lights in the Arctic continue to grow in number as much of the northern hemisphere concludes what has been a summer of weather extremes. Climate change threats continue to be mixed in with politics within the Arctic and well beyond, but the amount of time required to best address said threats is showing every sign of dwindling.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine entered its fifth month, and with little sign of a resolution, Arctic governments in the West have continued to pursue different avenues of cooperation to respond to the aggression of the Putin regime. The question of when and how the Ukraine conflict may spill over more directly into the Arctic is an omnipresent concern throughout Europe and North America, and these worries have manifested themselves into a redrawing of various borders in the far north, including in some unexpected places.
Finland and Sweden have continued to pursue fast-track membership in NATO, which if successful would place all Arctic governments save Russia within the alliance, and place the far north as a higher priority for the organisation. Canada was the first country to ratify the two states’ NATO applications, while previous opposition from the Recep Erdoğan government in Turkey (Türkiye) was dropped, (at least for now), after successful negotiations on the eve of the NATO summit in Madrid earlier this month.
Moscow’s response to the two Arctic nations’ NATO bid has been mixed, seemingly accepting of their probable accession, but also warning that Russia would ‘respond in kind’ if new military contingents and infrastructure were stationed in the two countries. Finland shares a 1330km border with Russia, and Helsinki had confirmed last month that it would be fortifying that frontier with various additional barriers.
In addition to land borders, the two applications also serve to push various security concerns in the Baltic Sea and Nordic-Arctic region closer together. For example, Russia maintains an enclave, Kaliningrad (Калининград), with a population of approximately 475,000, which is bracketed by Lithuania and Poland by land. This territory would be surrounded by sea with NATO member states should Helsinki and Stockholm be successful in their bids.
Relations between Lithuania and Russia chilled further last month after the former sought to enforce European Union sanctions on Moscow by restricting land-based shipments of goods from Russia proper to Kaliningrad via Lithuanian territory, a move which Russian official decried as tantamount to a blockade. However, this week the EU Commission stated that rail shipments to Kaliningrad from Russia would be permitted (with checks) save for weapons transfers, and Vilnius confirmed that it would abide by that decision, while stating that ‘Lithuania continues to advocate for the stricter and broadest possible modalities of the application of the EU sanctions’.
The Swedish island of Gotland (population 60,000) in the Baltic Sea has also been cited as a potential hotspot in the wake of NATO-Russia tensions. In mid-June, Finland and Sweden joined fourteen NATO member states, (including the US, Britain, Norway and the three Baltic nations), in the exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS 22), which involved manoeuvres on Gotland.
The island, which lies in the north-central part of the Baltic Sea, had previously been demilitarised, but that policy had been reversed over the past five years, in light of growing concerns about the vulnerability of Gotland to Russian aggression, given its location between Sweden and the Baltic states, (all three of which have recently called upon NATO to supply increased troop numbers, given their specific vulnerabilities to Russian attack).
Each of these examples have illustrated the growing strategic ties between the Baltic and European Arctic regions because of NATO’s expansion and mutual concerns over Moscow’s longer-term plans. As a senior Latvian government official noted this week, ‘Russia is also “throwing” challenges to the north, in the Arctic,’ and that the addition of Finland and Sweden into the alliance will strengthen the security of both regions. Latvia, as well as Estonia, are seeking formal observer status in the Arctic Council, which is itself having to maintain its operations with ties cut between Russia and the other seven members.
A more esoteric change in the Arctic’s frontiers was also confirmed late last month when the nearly half-century dispute between Canada and Denmark was finally settled with an agreement to create the world’s northernmost international border on Hans Island (Tartupaluk / ᑕᕐᑐᐸᓗᒃ), which had been claimed by both states as part of their respective Arctic lands. The uninhabited island, with an area of only 1.3 square kilometres, lies in the Kennedy Channel right on the maritime border, agreed to in 1973, between Nunavut’s Ellesmere Island and the western coast of Greenland.
For decades, Copenhagen and Ottawa pressed their claims to the rocky outcropping in often-unusual ways, including leaving national flags and bottled of local libations on the rocky islet, (which is why the dispute was often called the ‘Whisky War’).
While negotiations between the two governments over the ultimate status of the island was amicable, the talks were also becoming increasingly pressing given the opening up of the Arctic due to ice erosion, with both parties sensitive to not being perceived as being too conciliatory given the importance of Arctic sovereignty to both governments. The border option was one of two potential solutions to the disagreement, with the other being a ‘condominium‘ option, referring to joint stewardship.
The resolution of the Hans Island dispute was negotiated by both governments along with Inuit representatives in Nunavut and the government of Greenland, (under the 2009 Self-Rule Act [pdf] between Denmark and Greenland, the former retains authority over Greenlandic foreign affairs, including border negotiations). Freedom of movement on the island would also be guaranteed for local populations in Nunavut and the Avanersuaq region of Greenland.
The new boundary, running relatively north-to-south, would be about 1.28 kilometres in length and grant Denmark about sixty percent of the island’s land area. Lingering disputes over the demarcation of the Labrador and Lincoln Seas were also resolved at the same time. This would be the first land border Canada has ever had with Europe.
In 2018, a task force had been established to finally resolve the Hans Island dispute, and the announcement of the agreement last month took on new meaning in light of Russia’s attack of Ukraine. There were many comments on the symbolism of peacefully resolving longstanding territorial differences in the Arctic at time when Russia was pursuing an invasion and flouting international law.
The concept of ‘one Arctic’ which was free of most political concerns had been fast dissipating over the past decade, as the region began to become economically attractive to many Arctic (and non-Arctic) actors. However, this process has accelerated since the Ukraine conflict and severed Russian diplomatic relations with most of the West. The shifting of cooperation patterns around the far north is just the latest illustration how just how much the political landscape on the region has been changing, and at such a rapid pace.
Since early March of this year, the Arctic Council and its agencies, including the Working Groups which focus on various environmental and safety initiatives, have been placed ‘on pause’ as a response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With Russia holding the rotating chair of the Council until May 2023, when the position is still expected to be passed to Norway, the organisation became the Schrodinger’s Cat of Arctic diplomacy, in the sense that it was both active and inactive at the same time.
As far as Moscow is concerned, the decision by the other Council members to suspend operations was ‘politicised and clearly irrational’ [in Russian]. The Russian government has also since stressed that it was nonetheless dutifully carrying out its chairing responsibilities despite the withdrawal of the other members. In reality, official meetings have been cancelled, and important work, including addressing ongoing climate change challenges in the Arctic and providing a platform for Indigenous peoples’ cooperation, has been largely suspended.
During the spring, debates intensified, including during the recent Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, over how long the Council could operate under these circumstances, and whether some sort of attempt at a low-level engagement with the Russian government would be undertaken to keep cross-regional cooperation operating, even at a minimal level.
Instead, a decision was made last week by the other seven members of the organisation to restart some deliberations without Russian involvement. Now, the question is whether the Council will ever be able to return to the pre-2022 status quo, or will we see the beginning of a bisected Arctic, with Moscow going its own way. Regardless of the longer-term security situation in Europe, the reputation of Arctic organisations as being able to withstand external political pressures may be broken beyond repair. Moreover, as the Arctic becomes of greater strategic concern to many governments, and with Finland and Sweden having formally applied for membership in NATO, (albeit with Turkey/Türkiye still expressing reservations about the bids), the concept of the far north being separated from military affairs since the end of the cold war has also faded.
In a joint statement by the governments of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States, released on 8 June, there would be a ‘limited resumption’ of Arctic Council projects without the participation of the Russian Federation. Although there were no specifics as to which projects were to be revived, the statement added that there would be a focus on ‘responsibility to the peoples of the Arctic, including Indigenous peoples’, and that ‘additional modalities’ would be reviewed to further the work of the Council.
Russia is the largest Arctic state, with the longest coastline on the Arctic Ocean, and its activities impact the greater Arctic region in many ways, so regional cooperation without Russian participation will be a challenge. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, political divisions between Moscow and the ‘Arctic Seven’ (A7) had been widening for the past decade. Moscow has been critical of the decision made by the Finnish and Swedish governments to apply for NATO membership, with Russia’s Senior Arctic Official, Nikolai Korchunov, stating that the expansion of the alliance would result in ‘certain adjustments in the development of high-altitude cooperation’.
In the wake of the announcement by the A7 that Council activities would recommence without Russian participation, the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, Alexander Kozlov, decried [in Russian] the decision as illegitimate and potentially leading to ‘serious consequences, a sentiment echoed by Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, who said that any decisions taken by the Council without Russian participation would be ‘illegal’ in nature.
Both the initial suspension of the Arctic Council and the decision to resume activities without Moscow have created ripple effects in regional politics as well as internationally. It was reported that the organisation’s Permanent Participants, namely the Indigenous peoples’ organisations throughout the Arctic, were not consulted on the restart decision.
The Ukraine conflict, and the split within the Council, has affected Indigenous cooperation in the Arctic, as the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (Ассоциация коренных, малочисленных народов Севера, Сибири и Дальнего Востока Российской Федерации or RAIPON) had issued a statement [in Russian] in support of Russian actions in Ukraine, (a decision sharply criticised by representatives of Russian Indigenous organisations outside of the country.
The status of the Working Groups under current circumstances is also unclear, which not only has implications for environmental cooperation but also for diplomacy between Arctic and non-Arctic governments, as there are thirteen observer governments within the Council whose activities are largely centred on Working Group activities. It is also uncertain how new applications for formal observer status will be addressed when the chair position is scheduled to be transferred to Oslo. Two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, are amongst those states seeking observer positions in 2023.
The rapid changes to the structure of the Arctic Council are only some of the many signs that the Ukraine conflict has prompted the emergence of, as David Balton of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee noted at the 2022 Arctic Frontiers event, different ‘constellations’ of cooperation in the far north. NATO’s role in the Arctic may soon expand considerably, other regional organisations, such as the Euro-Arctic Barents Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, have been affected by the diplomatic fallout from the invasion, and official Russian participation in Track II events in the Arctic has also been curtailed.
At the same time, cooperation amongst the A7 nations may also be undergoing a transformation. Last week it was announced that after decades of negotiations, the Canadian and Danish governments were set to announce a resolution to the Hans Island / Tartupaluk sovereignty dispute which would entail a land border being placed on the small Arctic islet.
It was also announced last month that the United States was seeking to significantly increase investment in its military facilities at Thule in northern Greenland, in light of concerns over the security of the Atlantic-Arctic region. Washington has also deepened military cooperation with Norway, including via an agreement allowing US forces to make more extensive use of military facilities in the Norwegian north, (the Ramsund Naval Base at Tjeldsund and Evenes Air Station at Nordlund).
It is too soon to tell whether Arctic governance will become balkanized in the longer term, but at present the Russian attack on Ukraine may have inexorably affected Arctic diplomacy in new and sometimes unpredictable ways.