Climate change and technological advances will soon see the Arctic opening up to new trade routes, and the region's growing economic potential as well as military infrastructure are demanding the attention of global powers.
Rising temperatures are causing permafrost and sea ice in the Arctic Circle to melt at an above average rate. The main goals of Russia in its Arctic policy are to utilize its natural resources while using the seas as a transportation system for Russian and Chinese trade.
By as early as 2030, the Arctic Ocean could be largely ice-free in the summer, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program of the Arctic Council.
President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland from Denmark, is therefore perhaps also due to Greenland’s strategic proximity to the Arctic, a region which has become increasingly valuable. The US issued a contract only this year for the US Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreaker in decades.
VT Halter Marine will build the three new Polar Security Cutters (PSC) to be delivered in 2024. These ships are absolutely critical to conduct US operations in ice-filled waters, especially in the increasingly strategic Arctic region. The US Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) issued the contract.
The two American shipbuilding companies that built their icebreakers, Lockheed Shipbuilding of Seattle and Avondale Industries outside of New Orleans, are closed however.
Today Russia has 41 icebreakers with at least 8 more on the way. The current US fleet has only two. Moreover, Russia has six military bases, 16 deepwater ports and 13 airbases protected by S-400 long-range surface to air missiles. By comparison, the US has no major military bases north of the Arctic Circle.
Russia has therefore outpaced the United States in Arctic exploration. Because of climate change it will now make that long route through the Suez Canal unnecessary, providing both Russia and China with colossal advantages.
China considers itself as a “near” Arctic nation without territoriality. In a White Paper detailing its Northern Sea Route plans, Beijing has expressed interest in expanding the Polar Silk Road. According to the Northern Sea Route Information Office, eight of the 27 vessels that travelled along the route last year were from the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company.
China – not one of the eight nations of the Arctic Council – convened its own Arctic conference in Shanghai, following a fractious meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland in May, after the US refused to sign on to a statement from the summit on climate change – marking the first time the council had failed to release a joint declaration at the close of its meetings.
Last year, China opened a research station in Iceland similar to the one on Norway’s Svalbard Island, and it has signed an agreement with Russia for a joint research center to forecast ice conditions along the Northern Sea Route.
The difference between the Suez route and the Northern Sea is at least 30 days, an advantage which will change the entire structure of world trade, economy, geopolitics. The busy Suez Canal counted 16 596 transits in 2014 compared to 71 in the Arctic. But that may soon change, because potentially the distance from East Asia to Western Europe can be shortened by more than 10 000 kilometres.
In 2013, instead of going through the Panama Canal, a commercial vessel the Nordic Orion, cut its journey from Vancouver to the Finnish port of Pari by about 1 850km by crossing the Arctic. In 2017, the Russian oil tanker, Cristophe de Margerie, made the journey from Norway to South Korea without the help of an icebreaker, noted Mara Oliva, who teaches US history at the University of Reading in the UK.
In 2018, a Russian vessel left Russia’s Yamal Peninsula, carrying the first India-bound shipment of LNG gas from the peninsula through Arctic waters via the Bering Strait, Euractive reported.
Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as national waters (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles or 22 km) or internal waters.
Currently, no country owns the North Pole as it is situated in international waters. The closest land is Canadian territory Nunavut, followed by Greenland which part of Denmark. However, Russia, Denmark and Canada have staked claims to the mountainous Lomonosov Ridge that runs under the pole.
In April 2018, the US Bureau of Land Management announced it would begin an environmental impact analysis for oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), enabling the Trump administration to issue leases to the oil and gas industry in early 2019.
The area was designated as protected wilderness by Congress in 1980.
The British Royal Institute of International Affairs has estimated that the region could contain up to 90 billion barrels of oil, and according to the US Geological Survey, a fifth of the world’s natural gas is contained below the Arctic ice sheet.
Russia was the first country to drill for oil in the Arctic in 1915, and the Yermak was the first icebreaker in the world, already commissioned in 1898. In fact, in 2014, Russia became the first nation to ship offshore oil from the Arctic.
Moscow controls some 50 percent of the total Arctic coastline, and new developments would see Russia become a major source of energy supplies to China. The cooperation between China and Russia has irked Washington with the Pentagon responding that it would be working on a strategy to “defend the US national interests and support security and stability in the Arctic”.
The United Nations has allowed Arctic countries to claim up to 200 nautical miles off its coast of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). To get access to any area beyond this point, a country must provide proof that this outer zone is indeed part of their territory. So far, only Iceland and Norway have been approved, while Canada, Denmark and Russia have submitted overlapping claims that are still being debated.
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