InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion entitled "Cold War 2.0: The Possible Explosion of International Conflict over the Arctic," featuring Dr. Guo Peiqing, professor of international relations at the School of International Affairs and Public Administration at Ocean University in Qingdao, director of the Center for Polar Research, president of the China-Russia Arctic Forum, and founder of the Polar and Ocean Portal. The session discussed the changes that have occurred in the Arctic region and their repercussions, relations between China, Russia and the United States, the issues of joint interest between China and the United Arab Emirates in this region, and the impact of changes in the Arctic on the interests of the UAE.
The workshop shed light on aspects of climate change that the world is witnessing, which have increased the relevance of the Arctic region’s strategic position for international conflicts. It pointed to an example that reveals the climate change taking place in this vital region – namely, heavy rain in the Greenland area for the first time in history this past summer due to global warming, and the unprecedented shrinkage of the ice sheet to less than the average rate.
These climate changes have already led to geopolitical changes in the Arctic region. Since 2018, military operations of NATO and the US have increased in the Arctic via the Atlantic Ocean. The session also pointed out that military tensions are rising between Washington and Moscow in that region.
The discussion noted that disputes around the Northern Sea Route continue to escalate, with the US rejecting Russia’s claims to guarantee freedom of navigation in the North Sea, while in reality it exercises exclusive control over shipping lanes within its domestic waters. Moreover, Russia faces many criticisms of its environmental protection measures in the Arctic, and many US companies are boycotting the use of the Northern Sea Route.
New Focus of Conflict
The session noted that the Arctic region has become a new focus of conflict between the US and China. Washington seeks to block Beijing’s activities in the region and prevent it from strengthening its presence there, in keeping with the guidance of President Joe Biden’s administration, which the session considered an extension of the policy of former US President Donald Trump.
The discussion demonstrated this through America’s military position towards Chinese activities in the Arctic, including investments, and Washington’s accusations that China is engaging in expansionist activities in the South China Sea and the Arctic via many political and economic measures. The session also noted that Washington has already succeeded several times in destroying Chinese investments in Greenland and Iceland, adding that Washington is deliberately stoking disagreements between China and Russia in order to disrupt cooperation between them in the Arctic region because of the strategic importance of that region to the US.
Pathways to Cooperation
The panel discussion stressed the existence of cooperative pathways among the three major powers in the Arctic—Russia, China and the US—even in times of tension. Perhaps the most significant reason for this is the unique geographical and geopolitical nature of that region, which makes it difficult to function under the principle of alliances and rigid hostility to control its resources. For example, Russia and Canada cooperate in many areas in the Arctic, while the two countries do not agree on many other security issues.
The panel also pointed out that the most important areas of cooperation between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing in the Arctic are scientific research, glacial navigation, search and rescue, border guard cooperation, governance of the Bering Strait, oil and gas, and fisheries management in the Arctic Ocean. These activities are based on the common interests of the three countries in these fields.
The session added that there are agreements between major powers to manage vital issues in the Arctic, such as the agreement to prevent unregulated fishing, which was signed in October 2018 and recently ratified by China, alongside its approval of specific commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
Likewise, China cooperates with Russia on several Arctic issues. In July 2017, the two countries announced a joint initiative called the "Arctic Silk Road." China was among the first countries to support shipping via the North Sea amid the Western boycott of this route. In addition, there is good military cooperation between China and Russia in the region.
Challenges and Opportunities
The session confirmed that US-Russia cooperation in the Arctic faces numerous difficulties. Both parties refuse to make concessions due to their lack of joint interests. The panel clarified that the US does not provide any capital or technology to Russia, and, in return, Russia does not allow freedom of navigation to the US through the North Sea.
In the same context, China’s cooperation with Nordic countries, such as Greenland and Iceland, raises US concerns, causing the US to work to prevent the Chinese presence in the region at any price. Perhaps this goes back to the strategic importance of the region for the US. The session indicated that these challenges will energize China-Russia cooperation to counter American efforts to control the Arctic.
The panel added that increasing global warming enhances the investment importance of the Arctic, especially in the fields of energy and infrastructure. The session also explained that there are promising investment opportunities for the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in the field of energy and gas. This is evidenced by an agreement signed between Dubai Ports International and Rosatom for transporting trucks between the European Union and East Asia via the Arctic Ocean.
The panel discussion emphasized that the UAE has advanced technology in the field of oil and gas and China enjoys vast production capacity. This indicates opportunities for cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic, which has many investment opportunities in the energy sector.
In conclusion, the session confirmed that geopolitical changes in the Arctic region are increasing, but they will not lead to war or confrontation between the different powers in the region because it is an important strategic region for Russia, which depends on the region in all its future planning. Likewise, climate change and global warming are increasing the importance of the region in terms of work, living, and investment. It could be called the "new Arctic civilization."