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The melting of the Arctic Circle: Renewed geopolitical concerns

By Sweta Basu

The Arctic is searing up twice the rate of the average global temperature. The continuous evaporation of the Arctic sea ice is an alarming consequence of anthropogenic forcing due to soaring climatic variability. But this natural melting factor of the Arctic ice is gaining immense international attention from countries. It has opened up the chances for navigable trading links to increase bilateral trade between countries especially the member nations of the Arctic Council.

The constant race for resources, military bases, trading routes has put the entire region of the Arctic Circle at a great risk, which is intentionally been overlooked by. Though it has been forecasted by climate experts that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free by 2040, countries like Russia, China, Canada, USA, and others in the line have time and again slammed their claims of preeminence over the Arctic creating geopolitical contentions. Melting glaciers are exposing more lands for exploitation through offshore mining or military exercises further intensifying the strategic importance of the region followed by a global race of gaining supremacy keeping climatic alerts at stake.

The summer of 2007 witnessed a great amount of Arctic ice loss that resulted in floating of the huge expanse of ice covering the North Pole which further enabled Russia to drop submersibles at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean followed by the planting of a flag made of titanium at the North Pole. This marked the beginning of the excavations that attracted prospectors, entrepreneurs to turn towards the North for expanding their bases.

The role of the USA in the Arctic has not been quite dominating given the fact they have taken the least interest in this region, according to them. Though not being coercive enough, one cannot either forget or overlook the expansion of military infrastructure by USA and air force installation in Greenland along with their one military operational base at the Arctic Ocean. It is imperative to say that the USA has been considered as a reluctant Arctic power since they are constantly dispatching their troops, aircraft, and submarines into the territory of the Arctic and has further threatened to send more naval bases through Arctic shipping lanes.

Followed by the USA, Canada is also focusing on building naval refueling base at Baffin Island and has been contesting with the USA over the sovereign claim of the Northwest Passage as a part of their internal territorial waters.

Russia has already been eager to extend its offshore drilling explorations followed by China whereas Canada and Norway have invested for a federal truce at the Arctic. Thus the defrosting of the Arctic Circle has been subject to a new war of geopolitical militarization which has even left the climatic challenges behind. Whereas China on the other hand equally joined in the race and in the year 2016 abandoned a naval base in Greenland and the following year sailed through the Northwest Passage and in 2018 published a white paper titled, “China’s Arctic Policy”, outlining their plans concerning the Arctic Circle. Recently following the adverse effects of climate change, the melting of the ice has made the Northwest Passage a viable path for commercial shipping that increases the chances of 40% transit routes interconnecting China and even Europe.

China has again declared itself as a “near-Arctic nation” and already constructed three military bases in the South of the Arctic Sea. They are keen on exploring the investment infrastructure of their new ventures across the Arctic through the Polar Silk Road initiative which has placed China in a constant struggle with Russia. Investment infrastructure in the northern oil and gas reserves has been expanded by Russian forces followed by military establishments. The Russians have further boosted their military presence in the Arctic by opening Soviet military bases and deploying radars and ice breaker fleet. The North Sea Route has also seen increased shipments from Russia which Putin promised to increase by around 80 million tons of shipped goods through the Northern Sea route by 2024.

The Russian expansion in the Arctic Circle followed the Chinese claims with minor contentions from Canada or Norway is creating ways for a lot of traffic and strategic militarization. The changing contours of geographical significance which is marked by heavy ice loss or permafrost melting have opened military and scientific bases in the region allowing easy cargos to come back and forth through the aforementioned Northern Sea route.

The looming uncertainty that binges through is whether the calm and cohesive Arctic Circle is becoming prone to a zone of zero resource demand or an area of increased strategic congestion. However, one can assure that the race of supremacy between major players to discover new routes for trading and control over resources to emerge as a global leader concerning maritime security has opened up a new era of ‘water wars’. The climate crisis also plays a crucial role here. It has thus become a venture of new business since this fast melting of the Arctic sea ice will open up fishing opportunities followed by logistics, tourism, mineral shipments through oil and gas which will further enable countries to prove their geo-strategic capabilities.

The biggest fear that whether the Arctic Circle is becoming the next “disputed” South China Sea or not has not only gained the attention of the world leaders but also made it clear that territorial claims across waters followed by prospects of global maritime trade has become the contemporary “power maximizing” parameter for countries. Whether they are optimizing the climate change factor to simulate solutions or they are using it as a disguise to draw potential gains, is yet again a grey area that not only has led to contentions but also geopolitical complications that nations are yet to realize. This strategy is thus identified as a demonstration of capacity and the mere presence of nations across littoral waters.

Sweta Basu is currently pursuing Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry Central University. She is currently interning as a research intern under Observer Research Foundation and working on a project concerning Indo-China Relations. She is also working as a research assistant intern with the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation and Engagement. 

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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