Conquering The North: The Battle For The Arctic


Today, the Arctic attracts the special attention of the world’s strategists. Climate change is transforming the region, opening up new maritime routes and facilitating the use of underwater resources. It can be noted that in recent years, the confrontation in the Arctic has significantly increased. There are several reasons for this, the main one is the uncertain status of borders in this region, as well as its importance in the strategic plan:

Energy and resources

So far, no one knows exactly how much wealth the Arctic holds. According to calculations by the US Department of energy, up to 13% of undiscovered oil reserves and a large number of gas fields are located under icy waters. In addition to hydrocarbons, the Arctic has significant reserves of Nickel ores, rare earth metals, tin, tungsten, gold and diamonds.

According to some estimates, the Arctic contains 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and strategically important deposits of rare earth metals worth more than a trillion US dollars.


In the modern world, the value is not only raw resources, but also the communications and logistics through which they are delivered. There are two major transoceanic routes in the Arctic: the Northern sea route (Hereinafter NSR – Auth.) and the Northwest passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The richness of the Arctic latitudes is almost completely offset by the climatic conditions of this region. The nature of the Arctic is extremely hostile to man. Most of the year, the Northern sea route is covered with ice. The cost of mining is so high that the development of most fields is not profitable at the moment.

However, due to global warming, the situation in the Arctic is changing. The ice is gradually melting, which opens up access to resources and increases the attractiveness of Arctic transport routes. There are well-founded forecasts that by the end of this century there will be no ice in the Arctic ocean at all, and this will make the NSR free for navigation all year round.

Going along the Arctic coast of Russia The Northern sea route significantly reduces the passage time of ships between East Asian and European ports compared to existing routes passing through the Strait of Malacca.

These facts put the issue of “the registration of the Arctic`s residence” on the agenda of many leading countries of the world.

The Arctic is the most important strategic region and the North polar region of the globe, which covers the entire Arctic ocean, adjacent parts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, as well as the edges of the continents of Eurasia and North America within the Arctic circle. This zone includes the territories of 6 Arctic states: Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. Two other states – Sweden and Finland – have territories beyond the Arctic circle, but do not have access to the coastline of the Arctic ocean.

It is worth noting that significant interest in the Arctic is also shown by those states which territories are very remote from it, namely China, India, Japan, and South Korea. In particular, South Korea and China maintains its leadership in scientific programs to study the Arctic and builds gas carriers for Russian Arctic projects. Asian shipping companies are actively showing themselves in using the Northern sea route. In addition, Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia) closed a deal to join the Russian Arctic LNG – 2 project in 2019. China, in turn, is actively engaged in investment activities in the region and the implementation of the Arctic Silk Road.

Thus, illustrative examples clearly demonstrate the fact that many countries of the world are attracted by the prospects for developing the oil and gas potential of the Arctic continental shelf, fresh water reserves and the possibility of reducing transcontinental transport routes that may serve their national interests.

It should be understood that according to international law, each country has the right to use underwater resources at a distance of 200 miles from its coast. However, there is a UN Convention that states that if a country can prove that the ocean shelf is an extension of its continental platform, it will be considered its property. In this regard, the territorial Arctic issue is becoming quite relevant. Thus, Russia believes that the Lomonosov underwater ridge is a continuation of the Siberian platform. In this case, 1.2 million square km of shelf with huge reserves of hydrocarbons fall under Russian jurisdiction. Such statement in redistricting borders is not supported by other Arctic States (Iceland; Denmark; Sweden; Canada; Norway; USA; Finland). This position of the Russian side also raises concerns in China, India and the UK. These countries interpret international legislation in a completely different way, claiming vast areas of the Arctic shelf:

  • Canada believes that the Lomonosov ridge is an extension of its territory and promises to prove this fact in the UN;
  • The Lomonosov ridge is also claimed by Norway, which has already achieved the transfer of part of the shelf under its jurisdiction;
  • The United States considers its own section of the shelf near Alaska and is also collecting evidence;
  • China supports the collective use of the region’s resources, which will open up access to the region for Chinese TNCs and activate the Arctic Silk Road.

It is believed that the requirement that unites almost all members of the Arctic Council is international control over the Northern sea route. Currently, Canada, the United States, Norway and Russia have adopted state programs for the development of the Arctic. However, the approaches to the division and development of the region among the member countries of the Arctic Council are largely contradictory.

China also began to show increased attention to the Arctic. This country is an observer in the Arctic Council, and in 2013, China adopted a state program for the development of the region. It provides for the construction of its own significant ice-breaking fleet. Since 1994, North sea sails, the Chinese icebreaker “Snow dragon” made already several passages on NSR.

Analyzing the confrontation of geopolitical interests in the Arctic region, we should note the main Arctic powers and their military capabilities:

1) Russia is the owner of the largest Arctic coast, the Arctic water sector, and the largest continental shelf;

2) NATO, this organization includes five countries (USA, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Denmark) with coasts and territorial waters in the Arctic;

3) China does not have a coast and territorial waters in the Arctic, but by increasing its economic and, as a result, military power (including, first of all, a large military fleet under construction) may try to join the division of the international Arctic shelf – most likely by joining one of the two sides (Russia or NATO).

Today, many experts point to Russia’s superiority over the West in the number of icebreakers and Russia’s military advantage in the Arctic. But icebreakers are not warships, the main military importance in the Arctic are: 1) a military fleet that can be quickly transferred to the Arctic ocean from the Pacific or Atlantic; 2) aviation, including strategic; 3) air defense systems. It is noted that today Russia is strengthening its military grouping and tools of transferring troops in the region, as well as taking under joint Russian – Chinese control key sea routes.

China’s military capabilities in the Arctic region are generally more modest and are limited to a fleet that is also potentially armed with naval missile weapons capable of carrying tactical nuclear charges. China’s aviation today is limited by its attachment to aircraft carriers, the number of which China intends to significantly increase in the future.

Without leveling cooperation with Russia in the military sphere in the region, China actively involves economic tools of influence in the Arctic. Thus,in June 2017, the state Committee for development and reform and the State Oceanographic administration of China named the Arctic as one of the directions of the “One belt, One road” project. The “Concept of cooperation at sea within the framework of the BRI” refers to the need to involve Chinese companies in the commercial use of Arctic transport routes.

In January 2018, the state Council of China published the first “White paper on China’s Arctic policy”, which states that Beijing is interested party in Arctic Affairs. It was noted that China intends to create, jointly with other States, the sea trade routes in the Arctic region within the framework of the “Polar Silk Road initiative”. Thus, it was decided that the Polar Silk Road will be part of the broader Chinese “Belt and Road” program, creating sea trade routes and strengthening trade relations with different countries in the region.

It should be noted that in the Arctic strategy of NATO, in contrast to the strategies of other countries, the power component is most clearly traced, and the desire for sole leadership in the Arctic is demonstrated. The combined expenditures of the United States and Canada to expand their military presence in the Arctic over the past 6 years have increased dramatically, while Denmark and Norway have increased by at least 20 percent. In the American and Canadian Arctic sectors new military installations, points of the body and signals intelligence continue to be created.

The head of the US Commission on Arctic research, M. Treadwell, once pointed out that the accessible Arctic means new and expanded routes for American naval transport, and the emergence of aircraft, missiles and missile defense has made the Arctic region an important point for demonstrating power and an advanced area for ensuring the security of North America, Asia and Europe.

According to a report of the US Congressional Research Center, by 2022, the Pentagon intends to replace the F-16 fighters, which belong to the 11th air force stationed in Alaska, with new F – 35S. NATO allies will also be obliged to rearm. Thus, Norway is going to put into service American fifth-generation fighters in the number of 52 aircraft. Norway, in addition to the military confrontation with Russia, continues to develop transport infrastructure and, perhaps, in 2021, the railway connecting the mining areas of Finland with the Norwegian coast will be finally approved.

In November 2018, the largest NATO training in the post – Soviet era in the Arctic region, Trident Juncture 2018 (with the participation of more than 50,000 military personnel and large air and naval forces), took place near the Russian border. It also involved an aircraft carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier Harry Truman, which interrupted its preparations for a mission in the Persian Gulf. In addition, U.S. Secretary of the Navy R. Spencer also underlined that the issue of creating a strategic port in the Bering sea is being studied. He stressed that this would be a nationwide project that would involve the US Navy, the US Coast guard and private companies.

At the time, British defense Minister G. Williamson emphasized that the UK should increase its military power in the Arctic and called this region “London’s own backyard”. It was immediately supported by the UK Parliament’s defense Committee, which reacted as follows: “NATO’s renewed focus on the North Atlantic is welcome, and the government should be congratulated for the leadership that the UK has shown on this issue”. 

Thus, based on the above, we can predict that the relations within the China – Russia – US triangle on “the Arctic issues” are likely to be more complex and confrontational, since they are associated with countries’ desire to achieve “freedom of hands” and a leader’s position in solving many political problems, bypassing international organizations, and sometimes international law.

Analyzing the international situation on “the Arctic issue”, it should be emphasized that the Arctic can become the largest storehouse of energy resources and a key transport hub of the globe – this is the prospect of the near future, this is the prospect of the XXI century. The maritime route from Europe to Asia via the Arctic is much shorter than the Suez canal. From London to Shanghai, the South sea is 11,865 nautical miles, and the North sea is 8814nm.

Due to its special geographical location, large reserves of natural resources, defense, scientific, and environmental significance, the Arctic is a place where many countries’ interests intersect. Thus, tensions between the leading countries are increasing all over the world and will inevitably flow to the Arctic. Issues of sovereignty and freedom of navigation in the Arctic are becoming more relevant as sea traffic volumes increase and economic rates increase. Little-known in the past maritime routes such as the Bering Strait can become extremely important passages  – a kind of Persian Gulf of the future. In this regard, it can also seen that whoever controls the Arctic will largely control the world economy and the new international strategic corridor.

Maria Smotrytska
Maria Smotrytska
Dr. Maria Smotrytska is a senior research sinologist and International Politics specialist of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists. She is currently the Research Fellow at International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES), Department for Strategic Studies on Asia. PhD in International politics, Central China Normal University (Wuhan, Hubei province, PR China) Contact information : officer[at] SmotrM_S[at]


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