3 October 2017

The Scramble for the Arctic

With temperatures in the Arctic region continuing to rise, and with summer ice cover in that region continuing to shrink, the Arctic is increasingly seen as an opportunity for major economic growth for the handful of countries that have a coastline on the Arctic Ocean.  Furthermore, as this region is now seen as a source of economic opportunity and expansion, it is also becoming one of the world’s most important, and most dangerous, flashpoints. 

At the moment, much of the focus with regards to the economic opportunities presented by the changing climate in the Arctic is in two areas.  First, as less-and-less of the waters of the region are covered in ice as temperatures rise, new shipping lanes are emerging along the northern coasts of Eurasia and North America, shipping lanes that can improve connections between the major economic centers of North America, East Asia and Europe.  Second, vast reserves of natural resources, particularly oil and gas, are believed to be located beneath the waters of the Arctic Ocean, waiting to be exploited as the region’s climate becomes less of a hindrance to resource extraction activities in the region.  Meanwhile, while the promise of shorter shipping times and energy resources is attracting investment to the region, concerns over the security implications of this scramble for the Arctic are leading to a major military build-up along the shores of the Arctic Ocean.  Altogether, the Arctic region is quickly moving from a largely overlooked part of the world to one in which many of the world’s leading powers are now turning their attention.

Currently, there are only a small handful of countries that are actively engaged in the scramble for the Arctic.  In fact, only six countries have direct access to the Arctic Ocean thanks to the fact that they control a part of the coastline the rings most of this body of water.

Russia: No country has a longer coastline along the Arctic Ocean than Russia and no country has been more assertive in pressing its claim to a large share of the waters of the Arctic Ocean than Russia.  Moreover, Russia has moved aggressively to back its claims by significantly increasing its military presence in the region, while having the most developed infrastructure of any country in the region.

Canada: Canada has the second-longest coastline in the Arctic region and it claims more of the waters of the region than any other country outside of Russia.  However, Canada has only made significant steps to expand its economic and military presence in the region over the past ten to fifteen years.

United States: The United States may be the world’s most powerful country, but its presence in the Arctic region remains relatively limited, despite having a long coastline on the Arctic Ocean in Alaska.  This may change as the US grows increasingly concerned about the ambitions of Russia and others in this region.

Norway: Of the smaller countries with a stake in the scramble for the Arctic, Norway probably has the greatest presence in the region thanks to its long coastline and extensive oil and gas operations in the waters off of its coast.

Greenland/Denmark: Denmark’s role in the Arctic scramble is based on its control of Greenland, which could come to an end should Greenland eventually opt for independence from Denmark at some point in the future. 

Iceland: Iceland is the smallest country with a coastline in the Arctic, and its primary interest is as a strategic location along key shipping lanes between the East Coast of the United States and northern Europe.

So far, Russia has been the country that has taken the greatest initiative towards expanding and defending its claims in the Arctic region.  Not only does Russia claim a vast share of the Arctic Ocean thanks to a controversial claim that Russia’s continental shelf extends to the North Pole, but it has, by far, the largest military presence in the region.  Furthermore, Russia is hoping to develop ice-free shipping lanes stretching from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific, something that could dramatically cut shipping times between ports on those two bodies of water.  Russia’s increasing presence in the region has finally prompted Canada to expand its own presence there, but it remains to be seen if the current Liberal government in Ottawa will devote as much attention to this issue as its Conservative predecessor did.  As for the United States, it continues to play only a small role in the Arctic, despite its ability to bring overwhelming military and economic resources to this region.  Finally, non-Arctic powers such as China are growing increasingly interested in the scramble for the Arctic, although it will likely prove difficult for any outside power to establish a firm foothold in the region due to the control of much of the region’s coastline by major powers such as Russia, Canada and the US.

While the scramble for the Arctic moves ahead in fits and spurts, temperatures in the region are expected to continue their steady rise, resulting in more and more ice cover disappearing year after year.  Nevertheless, even as the potential for new shipping lanes and energy extraction projects improves, the countries of the Arctic will have to devote major resources towards developing the type of infrastructure needed to make these ambitions a reality.  At the same time, the major players in this scramble will need to significantly expand their military presence in the region in order to secure their contested claims to the waters of the Arctic Ocean.  This could either lead to each of these countries working alone to secure their own claims to the region, or it could lead to a number of countries working together to prevent any single power from dominating the region.  Regardless, the scramble for the Arctic is sure to become one of the most important flashpoints of the 21st century, while the political and environmental changes underway in the Arctic will have a profound impact on the rest of the world.