Many commentators were surprised by Donald Trump’s recent announcement ordering the construction of a fleet of icebreakers and two new military bases designed to strengthen US interests in the Arctic and Antarctic. However, the announcement merely reflects the growing strategic importance of these regions as the ice melts. In fact tensions and competing claims between Denmark, Sweden and a resurgent Russia have been brewing for years. Add growing interest from NATO and China and it’s no surprise that a new cold war is heating up.
For most of human history, the world above the Arctic Circle has remained largely irrelevant to the global economy. Explorers, speculators, and scientists long believed rich resources and shipping routes lay hidden beneath the region’s thick ice sheets. However exploitation of these potential riches was long obscured by the deadly cold, debilitating darkness, and enormous distances involved.
Today, thanks to climate change, the Arctic is the fastest-warming region of the planet and the biggest change has been the loss of sea ice. “It’s all happening much faster than anyone thought,” said Michael Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “There’s an ocean opening before us in real-time.”
The loss of sea ice has opened a new frontier and it’s not about claiming new territory. Except for a few disputed bits of the seafloor including under the North Pole itself, the Arctic’s borders are settled. However, nations and corporations are now in competition for a share of trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals like gold, diamonds, and rare earth metals, as well as the huge reserves of fossil fuels and fish. New shipping lanes which will reduce the journey time from Asia by around 40% are a prize in themselves.
The Scramble For Resources and Influence
The retreat of the ice has been followed by heavy investment by, notably Russia and Norway, who have spent billions in the last ten years on natural gas and oil infrastructure, deep-water ports, and ships capable of navigating the Arctic Ocean’s still-icy waters. China, despite being 2500 miles south of the Arctic Circle has been drawn in by the prize of shorter shipping routes and in 2018 announced its ambitions to extend President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic by developing a polar silk road.
“China hopes to work with all parties to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ through developing the Arctic shipping routes,” the paper, issued by the State Council Information Office, said.
China has backed Russian gas projects and has been offering development loans to other Arctic nations and openly harbours strategic ambitions to build bases in Greenland. The Chinese also are building their own fleet of icebreakers, including nuclear-powered behemoths, a clear indication of their ambitions for this region.
By contrast, most Western nations, including Canada and the United States, which together control nearly half the Arctic coastline, have until recently largely ignored the north, this despite Donald Trump’s ill-fated attempt to buy Greenland. However, the announcement of the intent to build new bases and icebreakers follows on from a surprise appearance by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Arctic Council in May of 2019.
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“The region has become an arena for power and for competition, and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future,” Pompeo said. “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement … complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.”
A New Cold War Heats Up
The US Coast Guard has long-held plans to build three heavy and three medium icebreakers to add to the sole ageing ship that is deployed. This stands in comparison to the fleets of the nations that have all laid claim to ownership of the region.
in contrast to the US’ one heavy icebreaker, the ageing Polar Star and one medium. Russia currently has some 40 or more breakers in total and is building more, Finland has seven, and Canada and Sweden have six each. China has already built two large conventionally powered icebreakers and has declared an intent to build a nuclear-powered ship.
It seems that this disequilibrium in fleet capability, bases and infrastructure investment when added to the increase in global tensions have been keenly felt not just in Washington but across NATO countries as well. From not having an Arctic policy in 2010, recent years have seen a significant increase of NATO exercises in the region as well as NATO vessels operating in the Barents Sea.
However Polar military experts are also sceptical over the urgency of the “icebreaker gap” with Russia. “It is not clear how Russia or China would leverage icebreakers to exclude the United States from the region, or how the United States would utilize icebreakers to overcome such attempts,” Paul Avey, assistant professor for political science at Virginia Tech, argued on the War on the Rocks military and security news website.
The increasing militarization of the High North is a result of the creeping tension, and the new frontier narrative has been accompanied by one of looming conflict. Add to this a growing narrative of an Icebreaker gap reminiscent of ‘the bomber and missile gap‘ of the original Cold War, and the potential for a new Cold War in the High North feels like history repeating itself.
As big powers assert their claims and argue over the geology of their respective continental shelves and stock up their militaries, the indigenous peoples in the Arctic face a new colonial scramble.
“Statehood happened without our consent,” says Delice Calcote, the indigenous activist from Alaska. Russia first colonised the region and then sold it to the US in 1867 for $7.2m.
“It is our land and our water. They [the US] don’t own it, it is ours,” Calcote said, echoing the view of some indigenous peoples from Greenland, through Canada, Norway, and Siberia.
When Sarah Palin, Alaska’s former governor won standing ovations for her chants of “drill baby drill” back in 2009, Calcote said her people had to rely on oil donated from Venezuela, despite the territories’ vast petroleum wealth. She described the typical conditions in most indigenous villages as “no running water, no sewers and the decline in our traditional food sources,”
The harsh divide between official state policy, and the conditions of people actually living in the Arctic, is not confined to the US. “The Canadian Arctic has some of the highest levels of poverty and substance abuse in the country,” said Wilfrid Greaves, a researcher at the University of Toronto.
“During the Cold War, the Arctic was a buffer zone, insulating North America from the Soviets and vice versa,” said Greaves. “It served a valuable function and no one was willing to tamper with it too much.”
Perhaps the icebreakers and talk of new bases are merely political theatre, the war dance of international relations where countries can flex – before negotiating – without spilling blood.
However, with more than one-fifth of the planet’s energy reserves potentially on the line, the stakes couldn’t be higher.