In recent years, the Arctic Circle has become an important symbol of the devastating impacts of climate change, but its role as a central focus site for geopolitical conflict deserves an equal amount of attention and concern. The Arctic Circle, fraught with melting polar ice caps, is becoming a key stage for global competition and potentially for the escalation of a great power conflict in the near future.
As the Arctic's treacherous polar ice caps melt away, nations have begun to engage in a modern gold rush over the region’s unclaimed territory, natural resources, and strategic position. As a consequence of the rapidly disappearing polar ice caps, there has been an increase in unclaimed ocean and land territory, beyond any nation’s control, that countries are attempting to gain jurisdiction over for purposes, such as resource extraction and trade routes. Beyond economic motivations, nations such as the United States, Russia, and China are competing in the region to project military supremacy and seek more power. The Arctic also sits at a critical position between North America and Eurasia, making it a powerful strategic position from which to project military strength. As the liberal international order is increasingly under threat by great power conflict (a scenario in which the already-contentious relationship among the United States, Russia and China could devolve into war), the Arctic Circle faces a crossroads: will the underlying boiling tensions explode to the point of larger global conflict or can diplomatic means be the key to ensuring peace in the region?
A 2018 National Aeronautics and Space Administration report estimated that the Arctic has lost 21,000 square miles of sea ice per year in the last five decades, opening up more territory on the narrowing strip of land for controlling and cultivating. Control over Arctic territory has given nations the ability to settle it, extract resources, and establish military outposts, making legal rights and claims over such territory incredibly valuable. Most legal matters concerning the region are determined by The Arctic Council: an intergovernmental organization that encourages cooperation in the region. Its key nation members are those that border the Arctic: the United States of America, Russia, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Currently, Russia and Canada have claimed the most land in the region, which is demonstrative of the scope of their influence in the region. Beyond the eight neighboring countries, there are also thirteen observer countries affiliated with the Arctic Council, such as China, Germany, and India. The difference in roles between member nations and observer countries, in many cases, can be seen in their stated reasons for being in the region. For example, the United States and Russia have previously justified their territorial expansion due to their proximity to the region, while China is more explicit about resources motivating their involvement in the region. The combination of a finite, yet growing amount of claimable territory as well as the perception of a zero-sum game have set these nations on a collision course for potential conflict. Consequently, the Arctic Council works to resolve disputes by publishing agreements and focusing on sustainability and environmental protection of the Arctic. The melting polar ice caps and ensuing territorial debates have set the stage for the magnification of the Arctic Council’s global role.
The competition over land claims is driven in part by nations' desire for the region’s natural resources, specifically natural gas, which provides almost a quarter of all global energy usage. Most natural gas supplies around the world have already been explored and exploited, but the Arctic presents a vast untapped reserve over which nations are vying for control. A US Geological Survey estimates that the region has 1,699 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and various other fuels, equal to the entirety of Russia’s oil reserves and three times as much as those of the United States.
The United States, Russia, and China are the primary nations competing for control of the Arctic’s resources. Parties to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea are entitled to resources that are within 370 kilometers of their shorelines, but most of the natural gas resources in the Arctic are beyond these legal borders. This distance creates a scramble to control these resources that goes beyond the influence of international organizations, stimulating further intra-nation conflict. As such, even nations that are far away from the Arctic are beginning to involve themselves in its affairs, such as China, whose interests lie in the resources that the Arctic holds rather than the land itself. China has few domestic energy resources with most of its energy consumption reliant on foreign imports from the Middle East, the United States, and Russia, which drives its ambition to tap Arctic natural gas to secure energy independence. China’s Arctic ambitions lay beyond merely energy however, as they have recently expanded their plans to take advantage of the nation’s resources in the state of legal confusion.
The Chinese Government has dubbed their involvement in the Arctic region as the “Polar Silk Road,” which is an allusion to the trade routes that they intend on pursuing following the acquisition of natural resources. China’s legal claim to the region differs from many other nations due to their lack of a land border to the Arctic, complicating their efforts. Chinese companies such as Shenghe Resources, China Nuclear Hua Sheng Mining, China National Petroleum Corp., and China National Offshore Oil Corporation have attempted to expand their mining projects in the region, but have found bureaucratic barriers and political opposition coming from the Danish, who control Greenland. Furthermore, China is outnumbered by its primary competitors, the United States and Russia, who have been operating in the region for far longer and have more experience in resource extraction. China’s one icebreaker, known as “The Xuelong 2” or “The Snow Dragon 2”, pales in comparison to the United States’ five icebreakers and Russia’s 51 icebreakers. The recent construction of “The Xuelong 2” has motivated the United States to ramp up production of icebreakers, including a plan to launch three more by 2029. The icebreakers are representative of the larger cat-and-mouse game that is emerging by the three nations, in which they attempt to pre-empt the other two countries and respond in kind to an opposing nation’s expansion in the region.
Outside of great power conflict, the rush for resources, especially fossil fuels such as natural gas, causes serious environmental impacts. As countries expand their drilling in the Arctic Circle, further erosion and harm to local species could occur as a result. Arctic drilling could exacerbate the damage that has already been done in the region with potential oil spills, which could devastate wildlife populations. In spite of these environmental consequences, the nations embroiled in the Arctic Circle conflict appear poised to further develop their drilling programs primarily for economic reasons. Economic benefits would resonate domestically in each country due to job creation, lower costs of energy, and energy independence, and would also extend to more favorable and profitable international trade. The conflict in the Arctic Circle mirrors many of the dynamics present in the South China Sea conflict, in which a competition over access to strategic positions and trade routes has expanded into a more overt conflict between great powers who see each other’s actions as actively hostile. Similarly, the non-binding nature of Arctic Council resolutions and the lack of enforcement powers limit the body’s ability to regulate the conflict at a time when peaceful negotiation and cooperation might be needed the most. The legal protections for the Arctic and its resources are no longer as effective in preventing competition.
The need to preserve these geopolitical and economic interests have motivated nations to bring a military presence to the region. Russia’s Red Arctic objective has propelled them to maintain its military presence through its numerous airbases and border outposts. Russia has recently flaunted its military might in the region through its August 2019 Ocean Shield Exercise, demonstrating its capability to conduct military operations in the region and to deter other nations from interfering. Russia’s military motivations in the region stem from its need to project strength, its perceived defensive needs, and its protection of economic interests in the region. Meanwhile, the United States currently has one airbase, the Thule Air Base, located in northern Greenland. In 2017, the United States invested US$40 million in improving the Thule Air Base due to Russia’s escalation of military presence in the region. The Air Base’s location is uniquely strategic given that it sits at almost the exact midway point of Washington DC and Moscow. The implications of the Thule Air Base for conflicts outside of the Arctic can not be understated as it could detect any incoming missile from Russia, North Korea, or China. The US-Russia dynamic in the Arctic Circle region is reminiscent of the Cold War, and while the two militaries have not come into direct conflict, their constant parade of military exercises and increasing military investment in the region set the collision course for a conflict that might erupt, especially as the territory is rapidly decreasing in land mass
The growing military competition over the Arctic has the potential to draw in even more nations. A 2019 US Department of Defense report speculated that China might be exploring the logistical possibilities of establishing a military presence in the region. The addition of a third global power’s military in the region could be the catalyst to a direct confrontation between the competing nations, but this potential larger battle could provide an opportunity for the Arctic Council to step up as a peacemaker in the region. The lack of international legal protections in the region creates a need for cooperation and diplomacy that could prevent escalating tensions. Resources and land are inherently finite, which makes the regional expansion a zero-sum game. The presence of armies heightens the already contentious dynamic in the region by allowing for the possibility of miscalculation. Although the risk of intentional military escalation might be apparent, the possibility of accidental conflict escalation in the region also remains a looming threat. Even though the tantalizing opportunity of acquiring more land and resources might not be enough incentive to lure global leaders into a devastating conflict that would cost many human lives, but simply having the military in the region might be enough to start a conflict that ends up spilling over into other regions such as the aforementioned South China Sea and the Middle East. This potential military conflict makes the Arctic Council’s role as a mediator crucial for preventing military conflict and for attempting to bring peace to the region.
As polar ice caps continue to melt, more unclaimed territory will become available for drilling and trade routes and, as a result, the potential to acquire more resources would increase as well. The real possibility that nations will become economically and militarily invested in the region means that media members and the general public ought to pay more attention to its geopolitics. Even as the conflicts between the United States and Russia and the United States and China gain more attention in the media, the Arctic Circle deserves to be among the forefront of those discussions. The actions and rhetoric of the United States, China, and Russia have and will continue to influence each other in the region. Consequently, expanding involvement in the region can be viewed by the other nations as a threat to their regional interests and has, in the past, pitted these countries against each other. Diplomatic means to resolve the conflict, such as the Arctic Council, exist, but questions remain about their ability to resolve the conflict and create agreements that are actually adhered to. The 2020s decade could prove to be the pivotal moment for the Arctic Council’s influence in the region and provide faith in cooperative international organizations. The implications of a successful Arctic Council resolution could increase the credibility, in the minds of skeptics, of other organizations which have recently had doubt cast upon them such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations. Conversely, a negative ending to the regional conflict could extend beyond the region into a larger war in multiple regions. Although the Arctic Circle is characterized by its geographical position at the top of the planet, right now, it appears to be the center of the world.
Radar at Thule Air Base, Greenland on October 7, 2010. Photo by JoAnne Castagna, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, Image is in public domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.