Some BRICS in the Arctic – Developing Powers Look North

The BRICS countries are increasingly asserting their strength on the global stage, with potential benefits and risks for world security. How do these countries’ ambitions and actions affect the Arctic? From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian PM Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South African President Jacob Zuma at the 2014 G-20 Summit. Photo by Co9man, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

In an age of rising powers, there remain few purely regional affairs. With ascendant powers eager to assert their growing influence overseas, many national issues have become international ones. It seems that the Arctic is no exception. While the Far North was once the domain of a few select Arctic nations, a number of developing nations have gained influence in the region. Namely, China and India have sought to increase their Arctic presence at the same time that Russia is shoring up its own influence there.

In the May of 2013, the members of the Arctic Council—the United States, Russia, Canada, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden—voted to install six nations as observer states. China and India were two of the six states welcomed to the Council (the others were Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Italy). While they do not have the ability to vote on matters before the Council, China and India now have their feet in the door. The vote marked an important step in recognizing their roles in Arctic development. Currently, three of the five BRICS countries have a seat at the Arctic affairs table. China and India have joined the Council at a time where their BRICS partner Russia has stirred up aggression in Ukraine, and has also been busy building up its Arctic forces. Its actions have raised the specter of military competition in the Arctic, something that the Arctic Council was set up to avoid. The concern is whether these three nations will act as responsible partners in regional economic and environmental activities, or if they will opt to enter into competition with other regional powers.

There is a clear risk of regional competition and instability. If other Arctic states do not act carefully, recent moves by Russia, China, and India may disrupt decades of effective multilateral partnership in the Arctic. The goal for the United States and its Arctic allies should be to deter further Arctic militarization and resource grabbing, while retaining the Arctic BRICS players as effective partners. The Arctic states must focus on aligning the interests of Russia, China, and India with their own, in order to preserve the Arctic’s diplomatic model.

Russia

Russia occupies a unique place in discussions of the Arctic. There is no denying that it is a true Arctic state, with vast territorial holdings in the Far North. However, it has many differences with other traditional “Arctic states.” The other members of the Arctic Council are steadfast allies, linked by various multilateral organizations such as NATO. Russia has been a mercurial, uncertain ally at best. At the same time, it has usually been willing to leave other disputes at the door and commit to peaceful Arctic development. However, recent events have changed its strategic calculus. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has brought Russia’s relations with the United States and much of Europe to a low point. Furthermore, now that China and India have become involved in the Arctic dialogue, Russia has become increasingly nervous about the potential loss of land and resources. Finally, while the Russian economy’s dependence on oil and gas is hardly new, it is major motivation for Moscow to assert itself in the region: geological figures by the United States Geological Service estimate that the region contains about 10 percent of the Earth’s undiscovered oil deposits in addition to up to 30 percent of its untapped natural gas.

A Russian Arctic infantryman takes part in a military drill in the Arctic. Photo via The Inquisitr, CC BY-SA 2.0

As a result of these trends, Russia is now seeking to increase its military presence in the Arctic. Russian military officials have announced plans to reposition ground forces along Russia’s Arctic coast. The military has also started to build new military installations in the region in order to guard its interests along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). It has conducted military exercises in the area, and also sought to bolster its nuclear forces there. President Putin has acknowledged his country’s newfound military focus on the region, saying that “the Arctic plays a very important role for us with regard to guaranteeing our security—unfortunately that’s the case. The US’s attack submarines are concentrated there near the Norwegian coast. I remind you that the flight time to Moscow of rockets from these vessels is 15-16 minutes. But our fleet is there. A significant part of our submarine fleet.” This change in Russian behavior poses a risk for Arctic security. Russia’s Arctic militarization creates the risk of strategic miscalculation and could lead other Arctic states into an Arctic arms race. Even absent military competition, Russia’s new Arctic posture will weaken the trust between Arctic nations and challenge the credibility of the Arctic Council. That might make it harder for the Council to reach consensus on a number of different issues, including environmental regulations and the organization of Arctic shipping. However one cannot forget that Russia is still an indispensable part of the Arctic Council and does have a right to access to the region. The trouble will be in reconciling these two truths and in ensuring Russia remains a cooperative Arctic partner.

China

China is a relatively new player in the Arctic, but it has wasted no time in attempting to expand its political and economic influence in the North. Even prior to becoming an Arctic Council observer state, it had gone on a charm offensive in Scandinavian countries, seeking to increase trade ties. It has been successful, signing a number of trade and investment agreements with Finland and actively courting regional leadersin countries such as Denmark. Furthermore, it has expanded the scope of other cooperative efforts, by investing in scientific polar research and by building its first polar icebreaker, the Snow Dragon.

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Sailors in the Chinese Navy, during a training operation. Photo by tpsdave, CC BY-SA 2.0

At the same time, China’s other actions in the Arctic reveal its primary motivations for its northern focus. Numerous state-owned firms have entered into deals to explore the Arctic waters for mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. Mining companies have signed deals with Scandinavian countries to mine iron, gold, and copper. Furthermore, Chinese oil companies have joined Russian oil and gas firms to begin the development of lucrative hydrocarbon projects in the region. Just last fall, Russia and China broke ground on the construction on a massive gas pipeline—the “Power of Siberia”—that will connect China to Russia’s far-flung Arctic territories, including its gas-rich Far East. China’s focus on energy is no surprise, as it seeks to ensure an adequate supply of oil and gas to fuel its growing economy while looking beyond traditional Middle-Eastern suppliers. However, these oil projects raise the risk of drilling accidents, which would be a disaster for the fragile Arctic environment. China will need to balance its hydrocarbon investments with additional focus on safe extraction.

While China’s energy-based motivation seems clear enough, its actions in the Arctic have aroused the concern of regional players. It has sought to paint itself as a “near-Arctic” state. At times, it has ratcheted up the rhetoric, with a formal PLA Navy admiral going so far as to say that the Arctic “belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it” and that China has a right to a share of the region’s wealth. Statements such as these worry regional powers, especially Russia and Canada, both of which desire to maintain control over their strategic sea routes. Furthermore, some Chinese business transactions have also worried Arctic countries. A Chinese investor’s recent purchase of coastal land in Spitsbergen, one of the northernmost islands in Norway, has created suspicion due to his suspected links to the Chinese Communist Party. Many observers suspect that China is attempting to secure a strategic foothold in the region. China has the clear potential to be either a constructive partner or a destabilizing force in the Arctic; which route it will choose remains to be seen.

India

India has not established as large of a presence in the Arctic as China, but it has made strides in recent months to reach similar heights.  . Late in 2014, India’s President, Pranab Mukherjee, paid a visit to Scandinavia, signing a bevy of bilateral agreements with Norway and Finland regarding a number of topics including education, military technology development, and nuclear energy.  The Arctic is increasingly on India’s radar, as it seeks to ensure access to its share of resources in the region. Mukherjee’s visit was intended to build political and business relationships with Arctic countries, in order to give India a regional foothold.

Closer ties to high-tech Northern European economies promise great rewards for India in a variety of sectors, including clean energy, communications, and defense. Scandinavian firms have both the requisite capital and technical expertise to aid India’s development. Furthermore, deeper economic and diplomatic ties with countries such as Norway and Denmark would go a long way towards helping India gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which is a definite goal of the South Asian country.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a 2014 bilateral meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Photo by Co9man, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

However, India has also acted to secure its own energy interests in the region. To achieve this purpose, it has often partnered with Russia. Even in the days of India’s previous administration under Manmohan Singh, it has sought to cooperate with Russian oil firms to explore and develop Arctic hydrocarbon deposits. India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has recently entered into agreements with Rosneft, a Russian energy company, to work together to develop Russian hydrocarbon deposits in the Arctic. Gazprom, another large Russian energy firm, has also shown interest in cooperation with India. India’s growing Arctic presence offers a possibility to bridge the gap between the Western Arctic nations and Russia.

However, Indian involvement in the region also raises the risk of competition with China. The two countries have already squared off over resources in other regions. Last October, Vietnam offered India two oil blocks to explore in the South China Sea, in waters that China also claims. China was quick to rebuke this move, raising the risk of escalation. There is the possibility that China and India will import their disagreements into the Arctic. Competition between the two would hamper efforts to promote effective, multilateral channels for Arctic development.

BRICS as Responsible Stakeholders

Russia, China and India are certainly committed to further development in the Arctic. There is no doubt that they will continue to pursue their geopolitical and economic interests in the region. The challenge for the United States and its Western allies in the Arctic Council is to welcome these three powers as constructive partners while preventing the development of a new “Great Game” in the North.

Russia and China signed a $400 billion USD gas deal in 2014, drawing upon Arctic hydrocarbon supplies. Photo by Mentoroso, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the case of Russia, Western options are somewhat constrained by the ongoing instability in Ukraine. However, Arctic states can work together to deter further militarization. The Arctic Council should hold discussions on the role of militaries as well as the use of force in the region. While recognizing Russia’s right to peaceful development of its Arctic resources, the other Arctic Council members must make it clear that continued militarization is not an option. At the same time, the United States, Canada, and the Scandinavian states should demonstrate that they have defense capabilities of their own. They can work together through existing organizations, such as NATO and NORAD, a joint aerospace command run by the United States and Canada. Increasing interoperability through these pre-existing multilateral structures will be essential to presenting a show of resolve to Russia and other potential challengers. The scope of training exercises should also be increased. While the United States has engaged in some joint exercises with Canadian forces, such as in Operation Guerrier Nordique in early 2014, both countries could do more to cooperate with Norwegian, Finnish and Danish forces.

China and India have not expressed any desires to establish a military presence in the region. However, their growing Arctic presence still raises the risk of great-power competition in the North. The existing Arctic states have a heavy interest in maintaining China and India as responsible Arctic stakeholders and keeping them committed to peaceful economic development and environmental protection. Giving China and India permanent observer status was a strong first step in integrating the two countries into existing multilateral channels. However, Arctic states can do more. They can increase the scope of non-military cooperation with both countries, including scientific and cultural exchanges. In particular, China and India could be included in research projects regarding climate change. Both nations have populations that are threatened by rising temperatures, and would likely accept more opportunities to contribute to climate research in the Arctic. These exchanges would build trust between participants and provide a basis for dealing with thornier issues such as resource claims. Furthermore, Western Arctic states should cooperate with China and India over resource development, but only if they agree to projects that are environmentally responsible as well as respectful of Arctic sovereignty claims. Lastly, the United States and its Arctic allies should invite China and India to participate in marine rescue exercises, in order to establish military contacts in the region.

However, China and India will not be the only rising powers to ask for a seat at the Arctic Council’s table. Other major countries, including fellow BRICS member Brazil, have also shown interest in the region for scientific and economic reasons. The Arctic Council should welcome them as observer states. This would allow existing stakeholders to address issues raised by new regional players in a pre-existing, effective multilateral organization. Some existing Council nations, notably Canada and Russia, have argued that admitting more observers would dilute the power of the current members. While this is a potential risk, it remains a better option than the alternative. Without access to the Arctic Council as a potential dispute-resolution mechanism, future Arctic players may take their claims to other organizations, such as the United Nations or the International Maritime Organization, thereby weakening the Arctic Council’s authority. As new players such as China and India enter the Arctic while old players such as Russia seek to change the regional balance, it becomes clear that the Arctic should no longer be viewed as the exclusive domain of the traditional “Arctic states.” The rest of the world is increasingly interested in the Arctic. This international attention has the potential to promote effective multilateral policies for economic development and environmental preservation. Left unchecked, it also raises the risk of a new “Great Game” in the far North. The United States and its Arctic allies need to retaining traditional Arctic ties while engaging new regional players in order to adapt to the changing geopolitics of the Arctic.

About Author

Kevin Xie

Kevin Xie is one of the Editors-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review.