Arctic Politics

From Stable to Scramble

Rapidly evolving environmental conditions are resulting in the Arctic becoming increasingly accessible to human activity to a level never before seen, and having major impact on the political, economic and social configurations defining the region.

It should come as no surprise then, that the potential use of Arctic shipping routes (which in many cases are noticeably shorter than the major southern routes), along with tapping into large deposits of oil, natural gas and minerals, has motivated states to look north at these lucrative prospects. With the growing strategic importance of the region, the five Arctic coastal states (those bordering the Arctic Ocean) have redoubled their efforts to define and gain international acceptance of extended Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and, for Canada and Russia, shipping routes as internal waterways vice international straits. Beyond the intra-regional aspects of these overlapping claims, external actors – particularly the emerging economic powers of Asia – are becoming more involved in the region to gain unobstructed access to and use of these shipping lanes, natural resources, and fishing grounds.

Apr 2015 – U.S. Secretary Kerry participated in a series of meetings with members of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Apr 2015 – U.S. Secretary Kerry participated in a series of meetings with members of the Arctic Council in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (State Department Photo)

These issues of ownership and access have fueled the development of a narrative of the Arctic as moving away from a politically stable region to one of high geopolitical importance characterized by growing complexity in terms of involved state and non-state actors, and competition over issues of sovereignty and control. The largely cooperative nature of regional relations since the end of the Cold War, as these arguments explain, is at risk and becoming ripe for rivalry with the current regional architecture simply unable to adjust and accommodate the expected scramble for resources and political influence.

Militarization of the Arctic
The strongest evidence presented in the portrayals of Arctic destabilization is the growing militarization of the North over the past decade. All Arctic states are augmenting their military capabilities in their northern territories, including the stationing of combat-capable units. The growing military build-up throughout the region, furthermore, is justified as a critical and important part of all the Arctic states policies that emphasize sovereignty as the most important (but not only) regionally interest.

Arguments for militarization of the Arctic appear both empirically rich in evidence and theoretically sound in terms of explanatory causes (defence of sovereignty in the face of competition for resources), but behind the simple cataloguing of military events, the narrative suffers from a lack of operational definition. Militarization is all too often asserted as obvious and growing, but without defining its major characteristics how can one be certain the phenomenon actually exists and/or be attributed to a single causal factor?

The augmenting presence, capability development, and employment of military forces in the Arctic is an emerging reality, but their use is, by and large, within recognized national borders and waters, and focused on exercising sovereign control to ensure compliance with state laws, border control and search and rescue. Retaining combat forces to defend sovereignty from potential state-based threats in the Arctic is a marginal requirement at this time. Instead, Arctic countries are more concerned about increasing their domain awareness in parts of their jurisdictions characterized by large geographic areas, small and sparse populations, and a lack of infrastructure, surveillance and response capacities. Such conditions are motivating states to rely on their armed forces to lead the way to better monitor and operate there. The flurry of recent Russian military projects in the Arctic, including icebreaker construction and the stationing of air and army bases, are largely aimed at establishing unquestioned international control of the Northern Sea Route, regardless of legal specifics. This is not to suggest that developing a war fighting capacity in the Arctic is not an objective of Moscow, but other interests, specifically constabulary matters where other agencies simply do not have the resources or capabilities, heavily shapes the makeup and operational nature of military developments thus far in the region.

There remains, furthermore, a distinct lack of power projection in the Arctic (except at the strategic level between the U.S. and Russia), with most military forces operating within their national jurisdictions – not only because of intent but also due to feasibility, given the harsh operating environment they face. As well, some military developments in the Arctic are based on larger, extra-regional factors. Modernization of the Russian Northern Fleet, for instance, which resides in the region on the Kola Peninsula, is designed to upgrade their nuclear submarine deterrent and for global operations more than for Arctic-specific purposes. American interceptor missiles in Alaska, also, are to prevent a North Korean missile attack as well as maintain the larger balance of power relationship with Moscow. The smaller coastal Arctic states, on the other hand, rely on multi-purpose vessels and aircraft in a variety of theatres including the North. Denmark’s navy, for example, is responsible for coastal constabulary duties that would normally fall under the jurisdiction of coast guards in other states.

The introduction of military force into the region, regardless of any underlying intent, can generate hostility and tensions. The 2003-2005 schism between NATO allies Canada and Denmark over ownership of the barren, uninhabited and economically void Hans Island was due in part to visits by naval vessels to the rocky outcrop.

Another possible fault line in regional military developments, which may lead to misunderstandings, is the fact that alongside Russia, the other four Arctic coastal states are NATO members. Any military developments by these countries, even if uncoordinated and distinct from each other, may be perceived by Moscow as a unified attempt to marginalize its role in the regional regime, especially given the current strains in NATO-Russo relations.

Most commentators are quick to assert that militarization is becoming the dominant force driving regional politics, but are at a loss for explaining how this process would unfold beyond simple narratives over expected opponents (Russia versus NATO) and causes (maritime zones and resources). There are no territorial disputes in the Arctic, with the exception of Hans Island, and there is no evidence to suggest Russia or any other Arctic nation is moving to employ military forces over contested Extended EEZs. The where and how any sort of conflict would unfold are simply omitted in these commentaries.

U.S. Marine Corps demonstrate an amphibious landing at Ramsvika Bay, Norway during Exercise Cold Response 2016.
U.S. Marine Corps demonstrate an amphibious landing at Ramsvika Bay, Norway during Exercise Cold Response 2016. (DND Photo: MCpl Maggie Gosse)

While changing threat perceptions may or may not be driving military developments in the Arctic, it is reasonable to predict that an increasing military presence may result in misunderstandings if they are not addressed in an open, transparent, and reciprocal manner.

Outsiders Coming In
Another central plank in destabilization arguments is the assertion that outside countries such as India and China will increasingly confront and contest the legitimacy and authority of the Arctic states’ pre-eminent role in governing regional affairs in their scramble for resource rights and shipping access.

Of those external actors, China is the most vocal in justifying the role of non-Arctic states’ involvement due the number of trans-regional properties of the North – including growing interlinkages to global politics and economics as well as environmental weather phenomenon – which impact other arenas of the international system. Beijing, furthermore, identifies itself as a ‘Near Arctic State’ with a legitimate role to play, and the will to invest significantly across scientific, economic and political fields. China, though, does not have an official Arctic Policy due to the low importance of the region within its broader foreign policy strategy, which is focused on immediate access to resources.

As Beijing, nonetheless, begins a more multi-faceted relationship with the region and its principal actors, there is a growing perception of China playing ‘the long game’ by emphasizing its legitimacy as a stakeholder (despite the absence of Arctic geography), to establish a foothold in the regional governance structure to position itself for an eventual revisionist challenge. The spotting of a Chinese naval task group operating in the Bering Sea, and the building of icebreakers, also raises concerns that Beijing may begin to use its military in a more confrontational manner in the Arctic (and elsewhere) to further its interests and influence abroad.

Lack of specifics on how and why China constitutes a threat to the region are indicative of the more generalized (but still problematic) ‘Assertive China’ narratives that dominate Western analyses of Chinese foreign policy. Clearly, China is actively trying to alter the power dynamics in its immediate environment of East Asia, but it is premature to talk of a revisionist challenge to the international system, writ large, guiding the entirety of Beijing’s foreign engagements, including the Arctic.

China’s Arctic engagements originate from, and are still dominated by, scientific research projects, building partnerships with many Arctic countries to further climatic and environmental research. Critics are quick to dismiss these endeavours as obscuring other political goals, but the massive environmental and climate challenges China confronts should not be underestimated, nor its influence on Beijing’s foreign policy.

China has made inroads into Canadian and Russian energy markets, having particular success in the latter case as the sanctioning regime imposed after their annexation of Crimea has left Moscow short of capital and partners for Arctic resource development. Developing economic relations, specifically pertaining to mineral extractions, has been another area of focus for Beijing in the North – signing a number of deals with Nordic countries – though there are reservations about Chinese dominance over these small economies (such as in Iceland and Greenland), as well as its environmental and labour practices. Despite these concerns, China’s ability and willingness to invest significantly in the region, requiring possibly decades of development before profitable returns are generated, is the primary factor motivating Arctic stakeholders to engage with Beijing.

Gaining entry into the Arctic regional governance structure is an important plank of China’s engagement strategy. In 2013, China (along with a number of other Asian countries) was accepted by the Arctic Council as a Permanent Observer – a position that does not have voting rights but is allowed to participate in working groups. The major condition China (and other applicants) had to meet was acceptance of the Nuuk Criteria which includes acknowledging the pre-eminent role of the Arctic states in regional affairs, their sovereignty and sovereign rights, and recognizing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the legal regime governing the region. This measure alleviated concerns by showing Beijing’s willingness to abide by the rules and conditions of the regional regime vice constructing parallel and competing organizations to promote their interests.

Mar 2016 – SNMG1 ships (Norway, Spain, Britain, France)  in formation after exercise Cold Response
Mar 2016 – SNMG1 ships (Norway, Spain, Britain, France) in formation after exercise Cold Response off the coast of Norway: HNoMS Storm, HNoMS Steil, ESPS Cantabria, ESPS Álvaro de Bazán, HDMS Niels Juel, HMS Iron Duke, and FS Primauguet. (Photo: WO C.ARTIGUES (NATO HQ MARCOM))

China’s slowly growing interests in the Arctic align within their broader foreign policy goals of diversifying energy and resources suppliers, securing trade routes and becoming more active in global and regional governance instruments commensurate with their growing great power status and role. Contrary to portrayals of China as an assertive and bellicose outsider, Beijing’s actions have been conducted through legal and accepted channels, including participating, at a low and non-intrusive level, in the regional political architecture. Acknowledging the differences that exist between Beijing and other Arctic actors over issues of extended maritime zoning claims, there is very little evidence of China becoming more aggressive in these pursuits at present.

Stabilizing Factors
The inaccuracies associated with many of the destabilization/scramble arguments do not, in and of themselves, explain the stability of the Arctic regime. In the future, the Arctic may become an area of contestation in the deteriorating relationship between NATO and Russia. China, and other new entrants, may become more aggressive, politically and otherwise, in challenging the rules and relationships defining the region. Arctic stability does not rely solely on the assumption of benevolence on the part of Moscow and Beijing (or any other actor). Instead, the Arctic is defined by a number of stabilizing elements and characteristics, and creating pathways to address areas of contestation.

First, at a structural power level, the region includes the world’s two nuclear superpowers whose deterrence relationship largely places a cap on their competitiveness. This condition is amplified by the fact that the Arctic, unlike other areas where they are competing for geopolitical influence, includes both their homelands. The other Arctic coastal states – Canada, Denmark and Norway – are members of the NATO alliance and thus well-insulated against attempts from any state-based threat under this security framework. The Arctic, also, while home to numerous maritime zone (not to be confused with territorial waters) disputes, has no ongoing territorial contestation (with the exception of Hans Island). Hypotheticals concerning China’s or others’ attempts to seize Arctic territory are ill-founded due to the fact all Arctic states are either nuclear superpowers or part of NATO (though there is no guarantee that a future independent Greenland would join NATO). Would China, or anyone else, actually accept such a risk for territorial aggrandizement in a region far from their mainland? The 2008 U.S. Geological Survey of the Arctic revealing vast amounts of untapped hydrocarbons indicates that 84% of these reserves are within recognized national territorial and maritime areas – this fact is usually omitted in commentaries claiming the certainty destructive resource competition on the horizon.

Observer delegations during Arctic Council meetings.
Observer delegations during Arctic Council meetings. (Photo: Linnea Nordström, Arctic Council Secretariat)

Second, while many of the Arctic countries continue to tackle issues of sustainable development and the welfare of northern indigenous communities, they are all developed and stable states with no civil wars or domestic unrest. Greenland is in the midst of gaining independence from Denmark – an entirely peaceful and well-defined political process of transition. With international recognition of territorial borders and functional governments in place, state-based threats in the region are marginal compared to non-state ones associated with increased human activity: a common and significant security challenge for all Arctic states.

Third, since the end of the Cold War, Arctic politics have become increasingly dominated by a number of inclusive institutions. The Arctic Council has moved beyond a strictly decision-influencing body focused on climatic and environmental research to one with limited decision-making authority – as evidenced by the enactment of binding search and rescue (2011) and pollution response (2013) treaties delineating areas of responsibility of the Arctic states. However, in conjunction with the International Maritime Organization, the Council created the Polar Code stipulating design and operational standards for commercial traffic, which is set to enter force 2017. These above measures demonstrate the common interests of the Arctic states to develop legal instruments to mitigate the challenges associated with increasing human activity in the Arctic. Instead of shunning external actors, the inclusion of Permanent Observers into the Arctic Council has lessened the risks of denying entry to these influential entities by allowing them meaningful participation and legitimacy as involved stakeholders. Concerns that the Arctic Council would descend into a ‘talking tea shop’ with the inclusion of a growing number of participants causing decision-making paralysis have not come to pass due to the fact the Arctic states are the only ones with voting rights.

Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR), wait for enemy action with a C-16 automatic grenade launcher
March 2016 – MCpl Chris Brown (left) and Pte Kyle Shantz from 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment (3 RCR), wait for enemy action with a C-16 automatic grenade launcher during Exercise Cold Response in Norway. (DND Photo: MCpl Maggie Gosse, Garrison Imaging Petawawa)

Alongside the Arctic Council, other forums have been established to foster regional cooperation and engagement, specifically pertaining to security matters which are purposefully omitted from the Arctic Council’s mandate. The most recent examples include the 2015 creation of Arctic Coast Guard Forum (involving all 8 Arctic states) designed to increase information sharing, best practices exchanges and joint exercises between their respective coast guards, and the 2013 Northern Defence Chiefs meeting to discuss areas of potential military cooperation. Given the vast size of the Arctic and the domestic constabulary focus, in-depth cooperation on these fronts is not expected – not because of hostility or animosity but rather due to practicality. There are, instead, tangible benefits for creating and maintaining these layered channels of communication and interactions, especially as all these actors face similar security challenges pertaining to border control, immigration and commercial, tourist and fishing activities.

Fourth, the success in broadening the institutional framework is in part pillared upon shared interests, norms and values held by the Arctic stakeholders. The most important example being the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration between the five Arctic coastal states. With mounting tensions over competing extended EEZs, Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark pledged to resolve these differences peacefully within the framework of UNCLOS, which was asserted as the principal legal regime governing the region (a position also reiterated by the Arctic Council). Despite eroding relations between Russia and the West, Moscow continues to submit legal claims through UNCLOS and participate in the regional discourse, which has not been particularly affected by the souring of relations in other regions. The promotion of UNCLOS governing maritime issues, also acknowledges the user rights of external actors who are concerned that these waterways will be sectored off by the Arctic states, providing an established and agreed upon framework for addressing areas of disagreements.

Finland sent approximately 430 army troops to participate in the multinational exercise Cold Response 2016 led by Norway.
Finland sent approximately 430 army troops – a majority of whom are reservists from Pori Brigade’s Finnish Rapid Deployment Force –
to participate in the multinational exercise Cold Response 2016 led by Norway. (Photo: Ina Nyås Moe / Forsvaret / Norwegian Forces)

The Arctic Regime: Adaptive and Robust
The most important feature of the Arctic political regime (defined as a configuration of norms, values and rules, which inform and underpin the paradigm guiding the nature of interactions among actors in an region) is its adaptive nature. It is not a static entity but rather in a constant state of evolution of building mechanisms to address a growing range of regional issues while making room for the inclusion of outside actors. Dismissal of the Arctic regime as ill-equipped to deal with a new geopolitical environment fails to understand its robustness which stems the excesses of geopolitical competition. The Arctic is a stable region characterized by an ever evolving rule-bound regime of developed countries, and an absence of war and failed states – conditions that heavily influence the pathways and processes with which both external actors and those residing in the region will pursue their interests in the future.

Moving forward, addressing security matters will continue to be an important priority within the evolving configuration. While the Arctic Council’s mandate forbids the inclusion of security issues, constabulary matters are increasingly being included in the regional discourse. The SAR and pollution response treaties are the clearest examples of regional attempts to deal with broad challenges pertaining to human and environmental security. Such matters are of a more immediate and realistic nature confronting the region than any sort of state-on-state military engagement. With military forces increasingly training in the region, the purpose and impact of such exercises must be addressed and clarified in order to ensure diplomatic energies continue to focus on the real and pressing challenges necessitating regional cooperation.

Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel HMCS Kingston, in the Davis Straight, participating in the Victoria Straight Expedition in search of the Lost Franklin Expedition
Maritime Coastal Defence Vessel HMCS Kingston, in the Davis Straight, participating in the Victoria Straight Expedition in search of the Lost Franklin Expedition in Canada’s Arctic on August 24, 2014. (DND Photo: Cpl Chris Ringius)

It is not the prospect of a resource war or military conflict that is the greatest challenge to the region, but the inability to address in a timely and comprehensive fashion the growing number of pan-regional challenges stemming from increased human activity. Politically, the region is uniquely configured, as neither the decision-making centres nor the vast majority of the populaces that elect their leaders reside in the High Arctic. Threat narratives are important in that they paint a picture of the major issues and the best ways to address them to decision-makers and their populations who, by and large, will never visit these regions but yet have a significant say in what the national and regional priorities should be.

While not suggesting that the region will forever remain void of destructive tensions and competition, the alarmist rhetoric increasingly framing Arctic discussions not only underestimates the stability of the Arctic but also detracts from investing in the more important and pressing matters that confront the region.  

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Nova Scotia whose current foci include analyses of China’s rise in International Relations Theory and military developments in the Arctic. He can be reached at