The Power of Siberia pipeline, a joint Russian and Chinese venture in which Russia has agreed to provide $400 billion of natural gas (LNG) to China over the course of 30 years, presents a complex vector of potential conflict. Arctic ice melt, energy resource shortage, and increasing geopolitical tensions are all implicated. The complex nature of these issues and the uncertainty regarding their eventual manifestation places the pipeline in the realm of emergent conflict.
The Arctic nations, in particular the five littoral Arctic Ocean states – America, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark – are most at risk. China is also a key player, due to both its role as recipient of Russian LNG and its Arctic ambitions. These states are all members of the Arctic Council, the principle body involved in international Arctic governance. While many observers consider Arctic diplomacy via the Arctic Council a success, and point to the generally cooperative nature of international Arctic interaction, this hides the geopolitical divide that exists at the core of the Arctic Council. Most of the five littoral Arctic states belong to Western international and supranational organizations like NATO or the European Union (EU). However, the growing interdependence of Russia and China, and both states’ geostrategic expansionist ambitions, will likely complicate future efforts to prevent Arctic tensions and conflict.
Arctic diplomacy via the Arctic Council has a long history of cooperative conflict resolution. The most notable instance of successful Arctic diplomacy is the landmark 2010 resolution of a Russian and Norwegian Barents Sea border dispute after decades of negotiation. This is largely a result of the unique application of the rule of international law in the Arctic. The predominant legal framework governing Arctic activities is the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes freedom-of-navigation rights, sets territorial boundaries, sets exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and rules for extending continental shelf rights, and has created several conflict-resolution mechanisms. This has provided the Arctic states with a solid and widely accepted legal framework within which to conduct Arctic activities and provided effective mechanisms to address disputes.
The five littoral states reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful and cooperative action within the framework of UNCLOS in the Arctic with the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration. The Declaration commits its signatories to address sovereignty and jurisdiction issues through the “extensive legal framework” that governs Arctic activity. Signatories also promised to strengthen cooperation multilaterally, through existing organizations such as the Arctic Council and Barents Euro-Arctic Council. This emphasis on cooperation is reflected in the five littoral states’ Arctic strategy documents, which share a number of basic goals and principles. These include: a peaceful, safe, and secure Arctic; sustainable economic and social development; environmental protection; addressing the rights and needs of indigenous Arctic peoples; and the maintenance of sovereignty. Another particularly promising development is the signing of the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. This treaty, signed in 2011 by Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, encompasses previous agreements like the Tromsø Declaration and commits its signatories to expanded cooperation and information sharing in Arctic search and rescue missions. The Arctic Council has historically had a reputation for keeping its dealings separate from other international controversies, and has developed an air of isolation from political turbulence.
This analysis demonstrates that Arctic states have taken great pains to maintain the cooperative, peaceful nature of national and international activity in the Arctic. In particular, the dogged adherence to international law has provided a unique way to manage disputes. In addition, the Arctic Council has proven a valuable forum in which member states can address concerns, pursue cooperation, and effectively manage increased access to the Arctic. Its ability to compartmentalize Arctic policy from other international disputes has proven mostly resilient. Which is what makes the impact of Russia’s strategies concurrent to the Power of Siberia pipeline most intriguing.
The insulation from international tumult the Arctic cooperation has enjoyed thus far may be eroding. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, linked to the Power of Siberia pipeline by precipitating the international sanctions which served as a catalyst to signing the deal, has become an important enough threat to influence Arctic policy. In protest of Russia’s supposed revanchism, the Canadian Chair of the Arctic Council refused to attend an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow. The Canadian government saw this action as building on other penalties, like sanctions and travel bans, it had already imposed on Russia. While well-intentioned, Canada’s policy of including the Arctic in its attempts to isolate Russia may have unintended consequences, particularly in light of Russia’s ongoing military expansion there.
Russia has been increasing its military capacity in the Arctic for several years now. On December 1, 2015, Russia’s Arctic Command Headquarters became operational, one of the most visible signs of Russia’s “plan to form a combined arms group and construct a unified network of military facilities in the country’s Arctic territories, by hosting troops, advanced warships, and aircraft to strengthen the protection of its northern borders.” This can be seen as a fulfillment of Russia’s 2009 Russian Arctic Strategy until 2020. This strategy emphasized the national security dimensions of Russia’s Arctic policies, with a discussion of the need to militarily protect Russian interests. In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin has explicitly stated that any Russian military buildup in the Arctic is a result of US submarines already present in the Arctic. This has begun to trouble Russia’s Arctic neighbors and is rightfully seen as “a direct challenge to the longstanding consensus that the Arctic should be kept free of military rivalry.”.
Such challenges amid Western fears of Russian expansionism and heightened tensions do not bode well for future efforts to mitigate or avoid crisis in the Arctic. Recent backtracking notwithstanding, Canada’s decision to link Arctic cooperation with its wider foreign policy has set a precedent in which other states may choose to prioritize contentious foreign policy over the previously pristine Arctic cooperation. Likewise, Russia’s military buildup violates one of the fundamental tenets of Arctic engagement, that of keeping it free from military competition. In light of these developments, the potential for conflict over the Power of Siberia pipeline, arising from the geopolitics of climate change, energy scarcity, and divergent strategic positions, should become much more likely.
The Power of Siberia pipeline poses the potential for conflict due to the unique forces shaping its place in world affairs. As such, careful and effective policy is necessary to avoid such an undesirable outcome. International cooperation in the Arctic provides the most appropriate policy issue to explore these potentialities. Arctic policy has a reputation for cooperation even in the face of political adversity. For the majority of its existence the Arctic Council, along with related Arctic bodies, have served as valuable arenas for engagement and conflict resolution. However, recent developments give cause for concern that the Arctic may prove as contentious and competitive as other human endeavors. In total, while Arctic policy offers much in the way of useful means to arbitrate disputes and manage conflicts, there is growing evidence that it will succumb to the tendency toward competition and conflict. Thus, the melting ice may one day reveal new grounds for war.