Arctic – a Mirror of Great Powers’ Geopolitical Interests?

For many years Arctic region was associated as a North “dead land”, that wasn’t perceived as a place for living or any economic activities. However, the situation during the last few decades has changed significantly. Global warming has made the Arctic region more accessible and desirable. A reduction in Arctic summer ice cover has become more intense in recent years, culminating in a record low of 3.4 million square kilometres in 2012 - 18 per cent below the previous recorded minimum in 2007 and 50 per cent below the average in the 1980s and 1990s.[1]  Ice melting opens a place for a new research and economic activities. It allows exploring the potential amount of natural resources in the Arctic region. According to USA Geological Survey in the depths of Arctic Ocean lie 90 billion barrels of oil. The US Geological Survey estimated in 2008 that 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids could be found in the Arctic. Approximately 84 per cent of those reserves are expected to be found offshore.[2] Ice melting also opens new shipping routes, allowing to use Arctic Ocean that comparing to the routes through Suez Canal is shorter by 40% and more secure. Wider access to the Arctic has increased geopolitical and economic interests of many international actors, including not only those of Arctic Council. However, there are three powers whose policy in the Arctic region is more insistent, prominent and aggressive. And they are China, Russia and United States of America. The rivalry between China, Russia and USA in the Arctic indicates both the interstates’ tensions between all three countries and the distribution of power in the international relations. This leads to the question: Is Arctic a mirror of great powers’ geopolitical interests?

USA government in the beginning of May, 2013 launched its National Strategy for the Arctic Region, outlining the government's strategic priorities over the next 10 years. Despite noting that “the Arctic is an amazing place” and “the Arctic is one of our planet’s last great frontiers”[3], strategy doesn’t provide any specific and real step that outlines USA’s activities that are aimed to prevent the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice due to intensifying global warming. Meanwhile, it is said that Arctic region “holds sizable proved and potential oil and natural gas resources that will likely continue to provide valuable supplies to meet US energy needs” and “We will enable our vessels and aircraft to operate, consistent with international law, through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce, achieve a greater awareness of activity in the region, and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed.”[4] It is obvious that Obama’s administration perceives Arctic region first as a land of energy resources, second as a way to increase economical activities and only then as a territory which environment should be protected.

The approach of Russia towards Arctic region isn’t slightly different with that of USA. Russia even has officially set the goal of deploying a combined-arms force in the Arctic region including military, border, and coast guard units by 2020, to protect its political and economic interests in the Arctic and boost Russia’s military security. Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Rogozin's strong statement that Russian oil and gas facilities in the Arctic could become the target of sabotage on the part of other countries is just another example of Russia’s interests in the region and tensions that exist between countries when there is a discussion on the agenda about the distribution of Arctic resources. Dmitry Rogozin has even predicted a conflict saying that “An active development of the Arctic shelf will inevitably lead to a conflict of interests between countries. Addressing these conflicts may go beyond diplomatic means.”[5] Such strong statements are not made by state officials out of the blue. Obviously, there are reasons for these words. Russia has also applied to UN Commission on the outer limits of the continental shelf proposed to consider the underwater Lomonosov Ridge that passes under the eternal ice of the North Pole a continuation of the Siberian continental platform. The same applies to the Mendeleev Ridge, located to the east.[6] Legally, this means that the requested areas are located in the "continental shelf" owned by Russia.

While the USA and Russia have direct exit to the Arctic region, China hasn’t. To compensate that China has been deploying its wealth and diplomatic resources to secure its interests in the Arctic region. Already in 2010 China’s officials came with the statement that China has equal rights as other member states of Arctic Council. In an interview in March, 2010 Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo famously said: “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it. China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”[7] China is looking for a various ways that could increase its influence in the Arctic region.

In order to gain an influence in the Arctic region China implements a strategy that has worked well in Africa and Latin America: investing and joining with local companies and financing good works to earn good will. Its scientists have become pillars of multinational Arctic research, and their icebreaker has been used in joint expeditions. Iceland, for example, already twice rejected a Chinese plan to buy a 115-square-mile farm along its northern coast for a proposed golf course resort; the island nation, which is located at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, feared that the proposal was part of a thinly veiled plan to build an Arctic port. European Union as well as Iceland has some concerns about China’s increasing interest in the Arctic region. Just one of the examples that indicated EU concerns was observed when EU Vice President Antonio Tajani flew to Greenland and offered hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid in exchange for guarantees that Greenland would not give China exclusive access to its rare earth metals. Tajani unabashedly called it “raw mineral diplomacy.”[8]

It is a wrong way to think that Arctic will only be of concern to those people living in the Arctic region. It is a concern to every nation, because there is no country that will escape the consequences, either through rising sea levels or extreme weather patterns. Therefore, there is request for international actors to develop a common and comprehensive policy toward the challenges that are raised by ice melting in the North Pole. However, activities and rhetoric of players who have expressed their interests in the Arctic region indicate contrary. Obviously, the Arctic region has become a mirror of great powers geopolitical interests. China, Russia and USA using different methods starting from political and economic to military are playing the game in the North Pole aiming to gain the biggest possible part of “Arctic pie”. Ex-Foreign Affairs Minister of Canada Peter McKay was famously quoted for his statement that he gave after Russia planted its flag under the water on the shelf: “This isn't the 15th century you can't go around the world and just plant flags and say “We're claiming this territory.” Actually the processes and (no) cooperation between involved countries reminds an international relations’ traditions from 15th century. Strong military, economic and political superpowers are acting on their own national interests forgetting about the essence of the region – ice melting - that will in the nearest future cause several problems to almost every nation of the world.

[1] United Nations Environment Programme, Strengthened Governance and Management Required to Prevent Rush for Resources from Damaging Fragile Arctic Environment, Says UNEP Year Book 2013, Sat, Feb 16, 2013,

[2] Eleanor Martin, Who has rights to the natural resources in the Arctic?, November 2011,

[3] The Washington House, National Strategy for the Arctic Region,, May 10, 2013

[4] The Washington House, National Strategy for the Arctic Region,, May 10, 2013

[5], World's strongest powers get ready to fight for Arctic riches, 01.07.2013.,

[6], World's strongest powers get ready to fight for Arctic riches, 01.07.2013.,

[7] Gordon G. Chang, China’s Arctic Play, March 09, 2010,

[8] Ed Struzik, China signals hunger for Arctic's mineral riches,, 4 June 2013

Publicēts 15. augusts, 2013

Autors Mārtiņš Vargulis