The Arctic ocean is gaining prominence in current geopolitics. While many of you would assume it’s because of climate change, you are not wrong! But what you might be unaware of is that this region is steadily becoming an important turf for the world superpowers. The effects of global warming are increasingly evident in this region. Some experts claim that the arctic ocean has lost 50% of the ice in the last 50 years. While the entire world sees this as a climate issue, countries like Russia, China and the United States see it as an opportunity.
Before we analyse the competition between the superpowers for the Arctic, it is necessary for us to understand the importance of this region. According to a US geological survey, the Arctic holds 412 billion barrels or 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of the world’s untapped gas reserves, and has deposits of minerals like iron ore, zinc and lead and precious metals like gold, diamond and gemstones. Apart from this, once the ice melts, the region will also become an important shipping lane. Once this lane opens, this lane can reduce navigation time between Shanghai and New York by seven days. This shipping lane can act as a second suez canal, as huge traffic of cargo ships are expected to use this route. Apart from all this, this region can also be used for tourism. To put all this in numbers, some experts believe this region holds $35 trillion of opportunities. It’s like a huge treasure chest located beneath the sea of ice.
Russia is the biggest player as it has the largest landmass in this region. By the time the United States and China realised the potential of this region, Russia had already started its work in this region. Russia has activated Soviet-era military bases and built new military bases in this region. It has also tested various weapons like ballistic and hyper sonic missiles, nuclear torpedoes, submarines which can emerge from the sea by breaking one and half meters of ice and many more. It also has the largest fleet of ice and ship breakers. It plans to use the northern sea route as a toll road, which can bring in huge revenues. In short, Russia is serious about its ambition for this region and also aims to protect its sovereignty when this region will gain prominence by other countries in future.
The USA and China are also catching up. The United States is also an arctic nation and has a military base in Greenland. It increased its military presence and conducted several military drills following Moscow’s increasing militarization in the region. Even though China’s northernmost region is approximately 900 miles away from the arctic circle, it declared itself as a near Arctic state. Russia needs foreign investments in order to develop infrastructure in the northern sea route. But following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014,the western investments in the country took a dip. Hence, Moscow has accepted billions of dollars of loans and investments from Beijing, like the landmark gas project on the Yamal peninsula. During a summit in Beijing in 2019, president Vladimir Putin said he is considering linking the northern sea route to China’s maritime silk road, which is being developed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But, with strategic and commercial importance of the arctic, the most important issue is being sidelined, i.e. climate change. The optimal utilisation of the resources and the shipping route is possible only when the majority of the ice melts in the arctic. While the fast melting of ice in the arctic is good news for a few businesses, it can cause a huge damage to the biodiversity in the region along with several other consequences.
Human greed knows no bounds and it is increasingly evident in this scenario. As this region heats faster, we can only expect many more countries to show interest in this region.
Hence its time for organisations like the Arctic Council, World Trade Organisation and the United Nations to intervene and set up a rule based order for any kinds of activities in this region. The world needs to step up its work on mitigating climate crises along with ensuring multilateral cooperation in ensuring sustainable trading activities in this region.
By Nikhilendra Mithanthaya