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Why Is Everybody All of a Sudden Interested in the Arctic?

The idea of the “global commons” is that these areas belong to no single country. The Arctic Ocean qualifies as a global common along with all the other oceans of the world and as such has been under the stewardship of a group of countries which makes up The Arctic Council.


Global warming is having a significant impact on the region. Arctic sea ice has been steadily shrinking. The maximum ice coverage hit the lowest level on record in 2017. By as early as 2030, the Arctic Ocean could be largely free of ice in the summer, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. Not only that but the permafrost is beginning to melt.

That is important for a number of reasons:

  • New shipping routes will be opened up cutting transit times from East Asia to Europe by two weeks:
  • The Arctic Circle is thought to be resource rich. It may hold about 30% of the world's undiscovered gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil for example.

So now the region is becoming a development hot spot. With major powers like Russia and USA seeking control of resources and transport routes. Russia is wasting no time in implementing an Arctic resource strategy and has already (unsuccessfully) attempted to lay claim to much of the Ocean basin. And now into the mix comes China.

The reason is simple. The region could provide an alternative supply of energy for China, lessening its dependence on existing routes, according to Chinese strategists.

China sought, and in 2013 secured, permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, granting Beijing a new platform to have input on governance of the region. China defines itself as a “near-Arctic state” and views the region as holding “the inherited wealth of all humankind” to be managed for the common good. Fine words you may think but what are they really up to?

Simply put, China wants a piece of the action. It is projecting itself as a major player in the region and the central intent is to incorporate the Arctic into a new Silk Road Trade plan as part of its One Belt One Road project. To do that it is using its financial muscle to support major developments, such as a Liquified Natural Gas facility on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia.

When the USA and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 after its annexation of Crimea the project lost its main funding partners. In stepped the Chinese with billions of euros of funding for a stake in the business.

However, China is also pushing the idea that the exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic needs to be accompanied by construction of infrastructure to develop the northern sea route which, no doubt, it will offer to help fund. But that will come at a cost. China does not simply want to be part of such projects – it wants to have a stake that will permit it to have a role in management. Parallels with China’s economic annexation of the Indian Ocean Basin are emerging.

Chinese business interests have made attention-catching bids for Arctic real estate. Targets of investment interest include a mothballed naval base on Greenland, a large coastal tract in northern Iceland, a rare piece of land on Svalbard, and a chunk of land in northern Norway. All of which are attractive to countries such as Denmark. Iceland., Norway and even Canada.

The future for the Arctic Ocean basin is uncertain. When the region was considered an inhospitable wasteland, the superpowers were not really interested. It was part of the global commons. But times have changed. Suddenly every country, it seems, is a near Arctic state and thinks it needs to have a Polar policy; countries like Singapore Japan and South Korea, even the Scottish Assembly!

What this means for the sustainable management of this fragile environment is unclear. What it suggests given the competing claims of different countries is that perhaps the High Arctic ought to be treated as a true, global commons like the Antarctic so that it can be better conserved for future generations.

None of the three superpowers: USA, Russia and China have a great record when it comes to the protection of the environment and now the wave of international interest in Arctic resources is raising concerns about global security. Once again, two military superpowers are staring each other down across the Arctic Ocean, and China's emergence as a third major player only complicates the situation.

By Phil Brighty

Former Geography Teacher

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