The Great Game in the Arctic

Climate change, melting icecaps and new opportunities for access to valuable resources have reawakened a struggle for power in the Arctic. The Great powers are jockeying for control of the region.

On the 6th of August 2012, Russia announced that it plans to build a string of naval infrastructure hubs along the Arctic's Northern Sea Route. According to the report, Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev confirmed that, “[A]uthorities have drafted a list of 'key double-purpose sites in remote areas of the Arctic seas along the Northern Sea Route' to enable the 'temporary stationing of Russian Navy warships and vessels operated by the Federal Security Service's Border Guard Department'”.

This is just one of the latest incidents of sabre-rattling in the Arctic region. Canada and the United States are also involved in this struggle for control of this strategic region. So are smaller states such as Norway and Denmark. A relatively new development is the entry of China on the stage.

In August, China sent its first ship across the Arctic to Europe and it is lobbying intensely for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, the loose international body of eight Arctic nations that develops policy for the region, arguing that it is a “near Arctic state”.

Minerals and Rare Metals

This summer Chinese ministers visited Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, offering lucrative trade deals. High-level diplomats have also visited Greenland, where Chinese companies are investing in a developing mining industry, with plans to import around 5,000 Chinese workers to the island, which only has 60,000 inhabitants.

Greenland is a “self-governing state” within the Kingdom of Denmark. In recent years, various powers have displayed a growing interest in the Inuit country due to the fact that the retreat of its ice cap has unveiled coveted mineral deposits, including rare earth metals that are crucial for new technologies such as mobile phones and military guidance systems. One area, the Kvanefjeld deposit, is estimated to contain 20 per cent of the global rare earth supply, making it the world's second-largest deposit of rare earths.

As improved technology, booming prices and climate change are making the riches of Greenland more available for exploitation; all the major powers have turned their eyes on this remote place. The US has been there in place for decades.

“Flirting Bandits”

In Thule, Greenland hosts the northernmost base for the US Air Force. At a conference in August, Thomas R. Nides, deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, said the Arctic was becoming “a new frontier in our foreign policy.” The message was quite clear: “The Arctic is ours – stay out!”

In June, Antonio Tajani, the EU’s Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, rushed to Greenland’s capital, offering 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, calling his trip “raw mineral diplomacy.” Unfortunately for the Europeans, this did not stop the Chinese.

Other prominent guests in Greenland have been the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. Also, Greenland’s Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, was welcomed by President José Manuel Barroso of the European Commission in Brussels. What a long list of “flirting bandits”!

China in the Arctic

Recently, China began seeking to enhance its engagement in the region as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues such as the management of resources, climate change, and Arctic environment maintenance. The Council has eight voting member states—Canada, United States, Russia, Denmark (Faroe Islands and Greenland), Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland—all of which share a border with the Arctic Ocean. There are six permanent observer states—all of which are European—and multiple ad-hoc observer members, among them: Japan, South Korea, and China.

This body previously focused on issues like monitoring Arctic animal populations, but now it has more substantive tasks, such as defining future port fees and negotiating agreements on oil spill remediation. Though Iceland, Denmark and Sweden now openly support China’s bid, Norway is against. The United States State Department has declined to say how it would vote.

A manifestation of this new Chinese strategic interest is the voyage of the world’s largest icebreaker, the Xuelong (“Snow Dragon”) to Iceland. The Xuelong left Qingdao on the 2nd of July for the 17,000 km voyage through the so-called “north-east” route along the coast of Russia.

Following the “north-east” route, the voyage from Yokohama in Japan to Rotterdam in Holland is less than 13,000 kilometres. This is a substantial reduction compared to the “Suez route” which is 21,000 kilometres. The opening of this new trade route could have big consequences.

A retired Rear Admiral of the Chinese Navy, Yin Zhuo, caused a stir in March 2010, when in a speech to the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference, he declared: “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” China, he said, must also have a share of the region's resources. This clearly reflects Chinese imperialism’s need for expansion. But the other imperialist powers are not eager to let them in.

Another example: In August 2011, Chinese tycoon Huang Nubo made a bid to purchase 300 square kilometres of land in northeast Iceland for an eco-resort. While his efforts are allegedly unaffiliated with the Chinese government, the deal would grant China a significant foothold in the Arctic. The land in question is strategically located near one of Iceland’s largest glacial rivers and several potential deep-water ports. As Arctic ice recedes, this area is destined to become an important port centre on a new maritime transport route between East and West. The government of Iceland ultimately rejected Nubo’s resort proposal, but not without first stirring a heated debate between Icelanders about China’s growing influence.

Military build-up

All the states are building up their military presence in the region in order to boost their interests.

As mentioned, Russia is building a string of new naval bases in the region. According to official sources, these bases are to serve a “double purpose”. However, there’s no word on what those double purposes might be.

The US still holds a decisive military advantage in the form of submarines. American submarines are more advanced, there are more of them, and their crews are better trained.

Still, Russia wants to catch up on the Arctic front. In late June, Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw the construction of another Borei-class nuclear submarine, of which Russia plans to have eight by 2020. ”Obviously, the Navy is an instrument to protect national economic interests, including in such regions as the Arctic where some of the world’s richest biological resources, mineral resources are concentrated,” Putin said.

Also, Russia announced in March 2011 that it would re-equip its motorized infantry brigade based in Pechenga, on the Russian-Norwegian border, as an Arctic brigade.

In September this year, Canada’s military was revealed to be planning to buy drones for one billion dollars. The drones, which are all intended to be armed, are reportedly focused (but not exclusively) on protecting Canada’s claims to the Arctic.

This year, the US Coast Guard has been conducting its largest Arctic exercise, called “Arctic Shield.” The Coast Guard is focused mainly on search and rescue operations; and responding to potential oil spills brought on by expanded drilling. Commandant Robert Papp told a Senate panel that the Coast Guard is “well-prepared” to operate in the region.

Even Norway is building up her Arctic military muscles. Norwegian Defence Minister, Espen Barth Eide, indicated in March that the Norwegian Army 2nd Battalion would be renamed the “Arctic Battalion” and equipped to patrol the country's Arctic territory. The battalion, a mechanized infantry unit based in the northern county of Troms, will be supplied with snowmobiles and other light vehicles for the task.

This followed a statement by Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre calling Russia and the High North “key areas in Norwegian foreign policy” and advocating diverting funds to monitor Russian activity in the Arctic. The Norwegian government also plans to purchase 52 new F-35 fighter jets in 2017, stationing them at Orland Air Force Base in central Norway, with a smaller operating base in Evenes in the country's north for fast-response capabilities.

However, as the Arctic powers – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States – remain at odds over how to divide up the region, arctic warfare seems unlikely. Russia and Norway still continues the cooperation between Gazprom and Statoil, and the two countries even hold some common naval exercises. And while small skirmishes (like the ones between Denmark and Canada over Tartupaluk / Hans Island) cannot be excluded, a larger-scale war seems unlikely because of the uncontrollable and cataclysmic implications it would have.

Imperialism – Still the Same

The whole “Great Game” in the Arctic is being played without the slightest consideration for human life and the environment. Recently, Moscow clamped down on the organisation Raipon which organizes the indigenous Arctic population in Russia. Clearly, the Kremlin was annoyed by the organisation’s criticism of the way oil drilling is being conducted in the region.

The Danish government is no better. At this moment, it is working on a law which will make it legal to employ Chinese workers in Greenland for wages that are even lower than the “normal” low wages in the country. The reason for this is that London Mining (a Chinese-owned company based in Jersey) has demanded the right to import what amounts to slave labourers. The world’s largest Aluminium mining company, the Canadian Alcoa, is demanding that it should pay no taxes at all in Greenland.

The peoples of the Arctic are looking at the new possibilities for exploiting the region’s resources. In this they see the possibility of improving their lives. This is understandable. But on the basis of capitalism, this cannot be achieved. The imperialist plundering of the resources, accompanied by a huge waste of money on military spending, will not bring prosperity to the peoples of the Arctic. Capitalism is not about the environmental and human needs. It is about profits and “spheres of interest”. So it was, so it is and so it will ever be, until this system is abolished and replaced by an International, Socialist Federation.