Design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli

The new geopolitics of the Arctic

In the Arctic, the climate and the “New U.S./Russia/China Cold war” are both warming at a very rapid pace (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US-China War? (1) and (2): Military Tensions in the Arctic”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, September 16, 2019). Indeed, since 2016, Russia is multiplying massive military manoeuvres. This includes militarization, nuclear war, and hypersonic weapons exercises in Northern Siberia, as well as in the Russian Arctic archipelago.

In the meantime, China is heightening its oil and gas operations in the Barents Sea, while the number of convoys that use the Northern sea route keeps on growing (Atle Staalesen, “Arctic gas finds new way from Yamal to China”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 1, 2020). Meanwhile, the U.S. and NATO also regularly deploy large military exercises including air power show of force.

From a warming Arctic to warming geopolitics

In other terms, the very complex cooperation between Russia and China in the Arctic is becoming a driver of tensions with the U.S., which are also feeling the attraction of the warming North (Valantin, ibid). Because of the rapid warming of this region, the strategic driver of these tensions is the opening of the Arctic to the international competition for energy, mineral, and biological resources (Michael Klare, All Hell Breaking Loose, The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, 2019). However, this strategic evolution must not hide the emergence of a fundamentally new geopolitical situation.

This new situation is nothing but the turning of the Arctic Siberian littoral into the continental launch pad towards the Arctic of the Russo-Asian powers that dominate the gigantic landmass of Eastern, Southern and Central Asia and Russia (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).

Arctic Covid-19

This continental dynamic holds a deep geopolitical meaning because of the accelerating destabilization of the Arctic ice cover. However, another dynamic haunts the Arctic and disrupts its emerging geopolitics, i.e the Covid-19 pandemic (Hélène Lavoix, “The Emergence of an International Covid Order”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2020).

In this new series, we shall see how these new tensions are escalating and how the new geophysics of the Arctic disrupts the deepest geopolitical equilibriums of our world. This disruption emerges from this new frontier of sea power.

The first stage of this massive geopolitical shift is the structuration of the Arctic through the same kind of competitions and tensions that are organizing the Middle East or the South China Sea. Those competitions result from the conflicting national and private interests fighting to access natural resources. In the same dynamic, these tensions restrain the ability of the actors to reach those resources.

The Arctic as a new South China Sea…

The New American and Chinese frontier

On 6 May 2019, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed in Finland the participants to the Arctic Council, the international body of all the nations of the Arctic region. During his speech, he declared that:

“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance, … It houses 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 per cent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore… Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade, … This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days … Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century Suez and Panama Canals”.

However, Mike Pompeo also added:

“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims? » (Mike Pompeo from Jennifer Anslen, “Pompeo: Melting sea ice “presents new trade opportunities”, CNN, May 7, 2019.

This geopolitical and strategic statement unveils the way the highest U.S. federal authorities are particularly aware of the new geopolitical reality: with the support of Russia, China is becoming an Arctic power. As it happens, a growing number of Chinese cargo convoys use the new Russian Northern Sea Route.

This sea route joins the Bering Strait to the Norwegian Sea, as well as the Pacific, the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic. Thus, using the Northern Sea Route allows the Chinese merchant fleet to reach the commercial ports of Scandinavia, northern Europe and of the North Atlantic, including Iceland (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic China (1) – The Dragon and the Vikings”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 26 May, 2014).

The Chinese presence in the Arctic is also scientific. A growing number of Chinese expeditions are mapping the sea floor in order to identify oil and gas resources. In the same time, others study the consequences of climate change on the Arctic environment.

Those scientific missions aim at identifying potential new sea lanes and biological resources (Thomas Nilsen, “China seeks a more active role in the Arctic”, The Independent Barents Observer, May 11, 2019). In the same dynamic, major Chinese energy companies are investing in Russian oil and gas operations. They also develop their own off-shore operations in the Russian exclusive economic zone.

Towards a Chinese and American Arctic “South China Sea”?

In other terms, the Russian Arctic sees the deployment of the same kind of commercial, fishing and energy developments as those taking place in the South China Sea. However, the comparison that Mike Pompeo draws is also of a geopolitical nature. Indeed, the South China Sea is a historic theatre of rivalries between China and other riparian states, as well as and relatedly between China and the U.S. (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Chinese New Silk Road part 1 – The South China Sea”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 13, 2017).

Thus, when Mike Pompeo utters such warnings, he as well implies that the U.S. presence in the Arctic is also going to ramp up. And that it will become an active competitor of China in the Artic region.

Those mounting tensions between the U.S., Russia, and China in a warming Arctic also reveal a deeper trend: the transformation of the warming Arctic into a multi-scale theatre of competitions and conflicts. Those are driven by the competition between great powers for access to and control of vital resources. Then, the competition created turbocharges tensions between regional actors. Yet, the South China Sea is not the only analogy for this kind of international politics.

… Or as a new Middle east?

Actually, we find also here the very drivers of geopolitics and dynamics that can be observed in the Middle East ( Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, 2017).

An Arctic “Middle Easternization”?

One of the distinctive features of Middle Eastern geopolitics is the way it inherited regional tensions. International politics there is also rooted in a multimillenial history and in challenging geographic, hydric and climate conditions. This geo-historic context meets recent international tensions centred on oil and gas. This cross-over of civilizational and energy tensions are forcing cascading political and military shifts. Furthermore, this happens in a very rapidly socially and ecologically changing region (Fred Pearce, “MidEast Water Wars: In Iraq, a Battle for Control of water”,Yale 360°, 25 august 2014).

It is interesting to note that, currently, the warming Arctic becomes an imbrication of different geopolitical levels. From this point of view, one could say that Norway is going through a “Middle Easternization” process. It is a small country, independent, while being an important oil producer. It is also an immediate land and marine neighbour of Russia.

Norway is also a NATO member, and the Norwegian ports are harbours for the numerous Chinese scientific and commercial ships. It is also an active candidate to host the northern Europe end of the intercontinental fibre optic cable planned by China. That cable could extend from China, and could be laid down along the Siberian coast to Norway. There, Norway would connect this cable to European fibre optic networks.

This project is feasible because of the warming of the Arctic and the accelerating decrease of the summer and winter ice cover (Maija Mylella, Arctic Finland “Data cables are the new trading routes, Finland wants data highway to Asia via Arctic waters”, The Independent Barents Observer, June 15, 2017 and Thomas Nilsen, « Major step towards a Euro-Asia Arctic cable-link », The Independent Barents Observer, June 6, 2019).

A warming cold war?

However, in October 2018, Norway was host to the most important NATO naval exercise since the end of the Cold war in 1990. This exercise was meant to deter the “unnamed adversary”, i.e. Russia. It also allowed for the deployment of enormous air and sea capabilities at the North Atlantic Northern sea route gateway. Those military deployments are a warning sent to Russia and China ( Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Warming Arctic – The Road to Neo-Mercantilism(s)“, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 12, 2018).

As we can see, Norway is a “hub of geopolitical scales imbrications”. It is as complex as any Middle Eastern country. In the meantime, climate change supports the access to the massive energy and biological resources of the zone. In the meanwhile the Northern sea route becomes an alternative solution to the Suez canal.

The Arctic enters the Covid19 World

Both the “South China Sea” and “Middle-East” comparisons help us understanding how the warming Arctic is rapidly changing. The latter becomes an attractor of interlocked local, regional, international and global geopolitics and resources competitions. This new reality is becoming more obvious and pregnant since March 2020. Indeed, the new Arctic geopolitics is also becoming a powerful vector of the Covid-19 pandemic (Hélène Lavoix, “The Emergence of a International Covid Order”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2020).

TheCovid World” Rules

Those geopolitics, nonetheless, bow to the domineering geopolitical situation that Helene Lavoix qualifies as the “Covid World”. In other words, nowadays, the Covid-19 pandemic is becoming the main and the most powerful geopolitical force in the world. This can verified through the mammoth and world-wide geo-economic disruption it brings in its wake. Because of its cascading effects, the Covid-19 leads the world economy towards the mother of all depressions.

Indeed, the pandemic affects all the Arctic countries, and also the strategic energy and military sectors. Furthermore, the “Covid World” also absorbs the Arctic through the possible infection of different military units.

For example, the Murmansk region is badly impacted by the virus. This is particularly important, because Murmansk is the most important civil Russian harbour on the Arctic coast.

The Murmansk oblast is also the headquarters of the Russian Northern Fleet. The latter plays a growing role in securing the immense economic exclusive zone. It also hosts the mammoth construction site of Novatek, the second Russian oil and gas company. Those constructions support the development of the massive liquid natural gas of the Yamal Peninsula, as well as other projects.

Meanwhile, for example, in June, the Murmansk Oblast suffered a higher number of contaminations than neighbouring Norway. This slowed down and disrupted the workings of the civil industries, with more than 2000 workers infected on the Novatek site of Belokamenka, as well as on those of the Northern fleet (Atle Staalesen, “After infection of more than 2000 workers, situation comes under control at Belokamenka construction site”, The independent Barents Observer, June 16, 2020 and “The City hat builds Russia’s nuclear submarines has more than 2000 Covid-19 cases”, The Independent Barents Observer, June 23, 2020). 

Thus, the pandemic disrupts the rhythm of the civil and military development plans of the warming Arctic . 

Covid disruption

This situation is not trivial. Novatek is a major developer of the Yamal I and II operations. Those attract massive foreign investment, from China, India, and Japan, among others. Those developments are deeply dependent on the warming of the region that allows access to new resources. Those extraction operations are of great interest for Asian nations. They work at diversifying their energy sector, in order to use less coal, while supporting their economic development.

Thus, the delays that the virus imposes to these operations are a potential constraint for the economic development of Asia. Reciprocally, this unveils how Asia links itself to the development of the Russian warming Arctic. It also unveils the way those massive geo-economic strategies on a warming planet are currently absorbed by the “Covid World”

Thus, we now have to look at the way those public and private actors adapt both to climate change and to the “Covid World”’.


Featured Image: Design by Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli for The Red Team Analysis Society


Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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