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The Quest for Polar Power: Arctic, World’s Newest Power Circus

Author : Sagnik Sarkar


The advent of global warming is considered to be behind a plethora of serious problems that the earth is facing right now, such as climate change and increase in seawater levels. The polar regions of Arctic and Antarctica are the greatest to suffer, witnessing severe levels of melting of glaciers. But at this time of rising polar temperatures, the world is witnessing increasing geopolitical competition in these regions. In the Arctic in particular, the rising temperatures have led to a great power contest, primarily between China, Russia, and the United States.

While Russia can claim to have a geographical and historical presence in this region, new entrants China are trying to extend their reach to Greenland and Russia through its Polar Silk Route element of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), forcing Russia to militarize its waters. The United States, on the other hand, sees both these players as strong competitors of power and influence in the Higher North. And even though the fight for power in this region has not crossed to a harmful extent, with the nations restricting themselves to assertive statements of intent, there indeed are key national interests of all the competing parties that must be kept in mind in order to determine their future course of actions with regard to this region.

The fact that 53% of Russia’s coastline is in the Arctic makes it a compulsory presence in the region. It also has the largest Indigenous Peoples population in the Arctic, summing up to around 1.4 million. Russia considers the Arctic to be a crucial region primarily because of its huge energy interests. It finds a huge economic opportunity in harnessing the rich oil and natural gas reserves of the region, as well as in the further economic development in the Northern Sea Route. Much of the untapped resources in Russia’s territorial boundaries lies in the Arctic, leading the region to be extraordinarily economically important to the country. Hence, Russia is undertaking the approach of steadily militarizing the Arctic regions, constructing around 475 new military outputs and 16 new deep-water ports, besides also increasing its commercial presence in the area. This military approach undertaken by the nation is majorly defensive in nature. However, there are instances of taking offensive steps as well, such as the establishment of a new Strategic Command center for the Arctic both to increase Arctic security as well as to defend its interests – leading to an increase in Arctic exercises. Russia is also constructing icebreakers and submarines, some of which are nuclear powered, as an effort to make its presence in the region louder for its competitors to hear.

China, meanwhile, has had its eyes set on the Arctic for a long time. It is not one of the Arctic Eight, represented in Arctic Council, but it instead considers itself to be a near-Arctic power, joining the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013. In 2018, it also released its first strategy for the region, wherein it talks about its Polar Silk Road component of its Belt and Road Initiative, besides mentioning its urge to develop new shipping lanes, as well as oil, gas, fishing, and tourism as key industries to become involved in as global warming progresses. And while it does not seem very likely, it might just be that China would tie-up with Russia in the Arctic. Both the nations are increasingly working together on Arctic development. China has been backing Russian infrastructure and energy project in the Arctic. It remains to be seen whether these two powers, who arguably do not have a historically close relationship, will continue to work together in the times to come.

The United States, on the other hand, consider China to be a threat to Arctic Peace. Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State, had even gone to the extent of claiming that the Arctic region’s condition would be similar to the South China Sea had China made an entry there as well. The fact that China is moving forward with investment projects in Greenland, Iceland, and Finland, is also something which irks US pretty much. In Greenland, for instance, China’s bid to build a new airport was halted by the States, who claimed that they would invest in such projects instead.

With a new administration in power at the United States, it has already started to show immense interest in the Arctic region. The country’s renewed Arctic focus is proven by the fact that the US Navy and the US Department of Homeland Security has released fresh Arctic Strategies this year. US’ approach to the region can be perfectly summed up as a response to the growing intrusion of Russia and China there. It is more reactive than the other two power mongers in the Arctic.

While only time can tell what the Joe Biden administration’s strategy for Artic will be, one thing can be said for sure, that the region near the Northern Pole is evidently going to be the next theatre of great power competition. There is still uncertainty about whether this competition would take a violent form or not.

References: -

[1]Gricius, Gabriella, “Arctic Great Power Competition: The United States, Russia And China,” Global Security Review, April 12, 2021 Arctic Great Power Competition: The United States, Russia and China | Global Security Review

[2]Teeple, Nancy, “Great Power Competition in the Arctic,” Network for Strategy Analysis, April 13, 2021

Great Power Competition in the Arctic - Network for Strategic Analysis (NSA) (ras-nsa.ca)

[3] Saxena, Abhishek, “The Return of Great Power Competition to the Arctic,” The Arctic Institute, October 22, 2020

The Return of Great Power Competition to the Arctic | The Arctic Institute

[4]”Competition to Arctic: Return of Great Power,” Belt and Road News, October 23, 2020

Competition to Arctic: Return of Great Power | Belt & Road News (beltandroad.news)

[5]Lee, Connie, “Great Power Competition Extends to Arctic,” National Defense, December 8, 2019

Great Power Competition Extends to Arctic (nationaldefensemagazine.org)


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