In May 2013, several Asian countries obtained the status of “permanent observer” at the Arctic Council, the body that gathers the eight countries bordering the Arctic. These new “observers” are China, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan (Russia Today, Northern exposure, May 15, 2013).
This rush of Asian (some of them tropical and equatorial) countries to the Arctic is one of the most important dimensions of the current global race to the Arctic region (see Valantin, “Arctic, the New great game”), triggered by the combination of the rapid warming of the North and the global competition for natural resources (Klare, The Race for what’s left, 2013).
The new grand strategies ruling over this race to the Arctic, which combine national purposes and complex power projections, tend to increasingly transform the region. They lead us to wonder if this “new North”, emerging from a web of very different, approaches, will not be more Russian and Chinese than North American.
A Warming Arctic, the new Russian power base?
The Kremlin has launched a tremendous – and costly – effort to politicize and (re-) militarize the Russian Arctic, while Russian energy behemoth Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil are bidding and obtaining rights to explore and exploit what they will find in the Barents Sea, as well as planning to exploit the famously rich and extremely difficult Shtokman gas field (estimated reserves: 3 200 billions cubic meters) (Charles Emmerson, A future history of Arctic, 2010).
This enormous endeavour is inscribed in the geopolitical vision and strategic thinking of the Russian leadership. Exporting oil, gas, and minerals is a way not only to develop the Russian economy but also (if not primarily) to expand its influence, and, thus, from a Russian point of view, its security (Marshall Goldman, Oilopoly, Putin, power and the rise of the new Russia, 2008). Having neighbours and Western countries as clients is a way to insure that Russia has a future as a viable, meaning “protected and secure”, nation.
The same strategy is used with foreign energy companies wishing to develop joint ventures with Russian companies (mainly Gazprom and Rosneft). Western exploring and drilling technology is badly needed by the Russian energy actors, but Western companies are never allowed to be on an equal footing with their Russian counter-parts, and can experience some quite intense administrative and political suffering before understanding it (Emerson, ibid).
One must remember that, for Russia, the twentieth century has been a long and most horrific experience, with Stalinism and the monstrous collective experience of the German-Soviet war during which twenty one million Russian people died (Alan Bullock, Hitler-Stalin: parallel lives, 1993).
The former century ended by a decade of such a violent economic, social, environmental, political, national wreckage, that, during this time, Russian people lost in average ten years of life expectancy (Naomi Klein, The Shock doctrine, 2008).
The Putin government is determined not to let that kind of situation happen again and is using commodities’ exports to this end. However, as current Russian oil and gas reserves are nearing their peak, the new opportunities opened by a warming North are nothing but a projection of this mammoth strategy of influence and security over the Arctic, in order to protect the future of “Holy Mother Russia” (Goldman, ibid).
China, social cohesion, energy and the Arctic
It must be noted that that if the Chinese Arctic strategies are different from the Russian ones in the way they are devised, there are convergent in the way they emerge of the memory of violent foreign interventions and in their political goal, which is to ensure social cohesion, while preventing inner turmoils.
The Chinese political goal is social cohesion (Loretta Napoleoni, Maonomics, 2011) which means that the government sustains economic growth in order to make most of the Chinese population benefit from it, directly or indirectly.
In strategic terms, it means that economic growth is a political tool to avoid weakness, discontent, and turmoil, bitterly remembered from the historical period ranging from the mid-nineteenth century and the start of the “century of shame and humiliation” up to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1950, the last Guomindang insurgency’s efforts, the two Taiwan Strait crises in 1954-1955 and 1958 and the domestic terrible hardships due to “the great leap forward” and the cultural revolution (for the weight of the past, Robinson, Chinese Foreign Policy, 1994).
Thus, Beijing seeks to maintain the economic dynamics that allow the Chinese population to reach new levels of development, and thus to permanently restore the “Taoist and Confucian mandate” of the ruling Communist party (Etiemble, Confucius, 1986), by being the “Middle Kingdom” of globalization (Martin Jacques, When China rules the world, 2012). And so, economic growth is most important, because economical setbacks in China can have social and political effects and trigger violent collective phenomenon, on a scale unknown in other parts of the world (Tombstone:the Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, Yang Jisheng, 2012).
However, it is a never-ending challenge given the size of China’s population, of more than one billion and three hundred million people. The accelerating rate of Summer sea ice melting, combined with its annual loss of volume, makes the Nordic sea route between Asia and Europe, which goes along the Russian north coast through the Siberian archipelago, more and more appealing despite its natural and technical difficulties. Indeed, when used, it shortens the journey between China’s oriental ports and northern Europe by more than six thousand kilometres (Eric Canobbio, Atlas des Pôles, 2007).
Furthermore, the Nordic Sea route would allow a lot of Chinese ships avoiding the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which are dangerously teeming with pirates. In September 2012, the Snow dragon, the first Chinese icebreaker, transported the first Chinese Arctic research expedition.
And so, from Norway to China new mega projects are currently studied to develop, for example, a “shuttle system” of a new class of Arctic cargo vessels, adapted to this extreme and changing environment, between new ports on the Barents sea and the Aleutian islands, at the Pacific and Asian mouth of the Bering strait (Anne Denis, Slate.fr, 05 Aug., 2013).
The USA and the Northern race
Strangely, if Canada is actively mobilizing, the USA is not currently one of the most dynamic actors of this new Northern race. In fact, the US national strategy for the Arctic, released by the White House in 2013, shows that, from a federal point of view, the opening of the Arctic appears primarily as a new opportunity to develop commercial partnerships with Asian countries, and thus to reinforce the economic dimension of the US “Pacific pivot” strategy.
However, contrary to China and despite a few strong official US declarations, this strategy is not clearly rooted in a political thinking that links domestic growth, social cohesion and government legitimacy.
It could also be said that the way the Arctic is understood in Washington reflects the current difficulties of US federal system, ragingly divided on how to keep the US economy afloat. Furthermore, the so-called domestic “shale oil and gas revolution” attracts much of public and private attention these days, focusing lots of public and private decision-makers only on the “ hinterland energy front”, combined with the Alberta Tar sands exploitation (Thomas Homer Dixon, The Globe and Mail, Dec. 20, 2013).
Furthermore, going north necessitates heavy investments. For example, it would imply building several nuclear icebreakers, as the US currently possesses only two major polar/arctic breakers (see USNI News, 23 July 2013*), as well as creating new harbours and coastal infrastructures.
Nevertheless, energy US mammoth companies like Exxon are very active in the region to ensure their share of northern development, but without being as actively supported by the US Federal government as Russian and Chinese companies are by their own.
Will the New North be Russian and Asian…?
The resources of the Arctic – oil, gas, fisheries – are becoming internationally attractive because of the warming and melting of the whole region, which, for the same reasons, becomes a spatial resource in itself with the opening of the Northern Sea route (20.000 cargo tons transported each year in the 1980s, one million tons in 2012).
However, transforming this attraction into viable development requires a fantastic projection of power, from both the public and private sector, and the current drivers of this effort are mainly Russia and China, followed by Norway, and by the gigantic global energy companies, which have to acknowledge these new political conditions. The Yamal gas mega project, in Siberia, based on a Russian, Chinese and Korean cooperation, is currently and quickly developed (Anne Denis, Slate.fr, aug. 8, 2013).
What is very interesting about this situation is that, since the breakup of the USSR and during the last decade, Russia and China have already developed a strong partnership especially in the field of energy cooperation. One can wonder if the dynamics and strategies developed by Russia and China through cooperation are not currently being projected on the Arctic, especially the Northern Sea route and the Barents?
It also means a growing number of relationships with smaller players, like the creation, at the end of 2012, of the “China Arctic research centre”, which gathers research centres of six of the member states of the Arctic council, with the Chinese Polar research institute, in Shanghai. The new centre will mainly focus on the effects of climate change, Arctic economic development and shipping, especially in Barents Sea.
Other Arctic states, like Norway, Iceland and Greenland, being extremely interested by the coming development of their region, are developing good neighbours relationships with Russia, as well as partnerships with energy companies (Klare, 2012), and are starting to have the same attitude about China. In fact, one could ask if, while Washington tries, more or less successfully to implement its ‘Pacific Pivot”, Pacific nations, Russia included, are not developing their own “Arctic pivot”?
… And for how long?
This whole brand new strategic development of the North is not only potentially politically dangerous, because the race for new, and maybe last, geological and biological resources is everything but pacific.
It is also driven by the “geophysics on steroids” of this extreme region, which will have, immense social, economic, political and strategic effects, as their dynamics will interact with the current and coming Arctic strategies. New socio-environmental risks, of planetary scale, are emerging.
The decade to come must now be explored from this perspective.
To be (soon) continued.
*Courtesy of a reader