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What Happens in the Arctic Does Not Stay in the Arctic

Northern and Southern Trade Routes. Credit: European Space Agency

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Sep 12 2023 (IPS) - While climate change is relentlessly progressing, threatening life on earth, world leaders continue to meet while planning for a future where this immense menace to human existence remains a minor item on the agenda.

Recently, the BRICS countries held their 15th annual summit in Johannesburg. BRICS, an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, was in 2010 established as a collaboration group for these expanding economies. This year’s summit was of a particular interest since the G7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain and the US) have been very critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while BRICS nations have been less so.

Xi Jinping arrived in Johannesburg on his second international trip this year, after visiting Moscow in March. Xi was expected to deliver his remarks alongside other leaders, but his speech was actually read out by his commerce minister. It made thinly veiled attacks on the US, describing an unnamed country as “obsessed with maintaining hegemony, [it] has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries.”

Since Vladimir Putin currently faces an arrest warrant for war crimes issued by the International Criminal Court, he was only present on wide screen. He also talked about “hegemony” while repeating his questionable reasons for the brutal attack on Ukraine: “Let me point out that it was the attempts by some countries to preserve their global hegemony that paved the way to the deep crisis in Ukraine. It started when an anti-constitutional government coup took place in this country with the help of the Western countries. This was followed by the unleashing of a war against people who refused to accept this coup. It was a cruel war, a war of extermination …”

Putin and Xi try to depict their nations’ politics as a counterpoise to the hegemonic strivings of the US and the EU. There are several signs that they consider themselves and their nations to be companions in the struggle.

During their meeting in Moscow this year, Xi said he hoped Putin would be victorious in next year’s presidential elections, since his “strong leadership had made good progress in development and rejuvenation”. Putin responded by stating that “Russia stands ready to continue to deepen bilateral, practical cooperation, step up communication and collaboration in international affairs and promote world multi-polarity and greater democracy in international relations.” A declaration sounding deceptive given what has happened in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as in Chechnya and Ukraine. Nevertheless, Xi’s speech in Johannesburg was quite to the point when he declared: “We gather at a time when the world has entered a new period of turbulence and transformation. It is undergoing major shifts, division and regrouping, leading to more uncertain, unstable and unpredictable developments.”

So far, Beijing’s support to Russia has been pragmatic. Apparently following the guideline of “What’s in it for us”. Nevertheless, Russia is an unpredictable partner, recently demonstrated by the mysterious developments around Prigozhin and his Wagner Group. There are no signs that Xi’s support to his “dear friend Putin” is wavering. Even if Xi has not explicitly endorsed Russia’s war in Ukraine, there are no direct indications that he disapproves of it. Chinese TV continues to mainly show Russian media coverage of the Ukraine invasion and Xi has criticised the “expanding of military blocs” (read NATO) while continuously condemning “the abuse of international sanctions”.

Between June 2022 and June 2023, exports from China to Russia had increased by USD 4.55 billion (90.9 percent), from USD 5billion to USD 9.55 billion. China is currently Russia’s largest trade partner and Xi and Putin have pledged to boost trade to USD 200 billion in 2023, hailing their “no limits” partnership. During this year alone Chinese imports of crude petroleum from Russia has increased by USD 1.74 billion, or 69,8 percent, compared to last year, while import of coal briquettes increased with USD 444 million or 193 percent. No good news for climate change, especially considering that greenhouse gas emissions by China are currently the largest of any country in the world, with a yearly contribution of 13 gigatonnes – 25 percent of global emissions.

At the BICS summit, Putin mentioned that a new world-transforming initiative has begun in the far North: “the relevance of accelerated development of transcontinental routes such as the North-South corridor, which will connect Russian ports in the northern seas and the Baltic Sea with sea terminals in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, [these routes] will in the future facilitate annual transit of up to 30 million tonnes of cargo.”

What is happening in the far North? By the beginning of this century the scientific community coined a new phrase: “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic”. Variations of that quote have been used to describe the effects of climate change, but now it is also increasingly involving financial endeavours and geopolitics.

Quite recently, actually in 1996, it became evident that climate shifts are both violent and extremely rapid – the Greenland Ice Sheet began to lose mass at an unprecedented speed. There were also reports that the permafrost was rapidly melting. In 2001, it was obvious that the retreat of the sea ice had become uncontrivable, leaving huge areas of the Artic Sea free of ice cover. This will probably have catastrophic consequences, not only for the Arctic flora and fauna, but for the entire world. As an example, around 15 percent of the Northern Hemisphere is covered by permafrost containing enormous amounts of dead biomass, which presently, at an ever-increasing speed, is emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus accelerating global warming. Strange effects of permafrost melting can be seen in Siberia, where methane build-ups under the tundra surface litter vast areas with bizarre earth mounds, which occasionally explode, leaving holes in the ground as deep as sixteen-story buildings.

However, this disastrous development also give rise to greed and exploitation. What Putin meant by a North-South corridor that will connect Russian ports in the northern seas with ports in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean is the realisation of an important phase of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a Chinese global infrastructure development strategy adopted in 2013, meaning huge investments in more than 150 countries . It was thus no coincidence that China at the BRICS summit pushed for the inclusion of six more nations: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Argentina. All these countries, except for Argentina, are directly affected by the maritime part of the BRI mentioned by Putin. Shipping lines through the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean will be connected with a northern route through the now increasingly ice-free Northeast Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Huge projects connected with this initiative have already been initiated. New deep-water harbours are constructed outside Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok. Arkhangelsk is the largest city on Russia’s northern, European coast, while the port of Zarubino, south of Vladivostok, is close to China. Both harbours are ice-free the year around.

Furthermore, China and Russia are developing the huge Payakha oilfield at the Taymyr peninsula, in the northernmost part of Eurasia. Apart from establishing strategic connections along the Northeast Passage’s shipping line, the joint Russia-China BRI is now constructing a pipeline from Siberia to Vladivostok, while linking up Russia’s railway network and river systems with new developing sites in the North.

Russian shores cover 53 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s coastline and with the ice and tundra melting, problems are arising for the EU and the US. Closer contacts with the Middle East, Africa and China are probably beneficial for a Russia which is increasingly distant from the West, a cumbersome situation that makes Russian development and exploitation of the Arctic realm a priority. Diplomatic efforts have been made to improve relations with the governments of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which still are under Danish sovereignty, in the sense that military security rests with the Danish Government, though they are semi-independent islands and are free to trade and foment investments on their own. While Russia now is crippled by the European condemnation of the Ukrainian invasion, Arctic nations like Iceland, Norway, Finland and Denmark dominated islands are free to open up to Chinese investment and trade agreements, thus also indirectly serving Russians interests.

China is interested in polar science, infrastructure, and natural resources, while Greenland is eager to attract foreign investment. China is Greenland’s largest foreign investor, with USD 2 billion in yearly investments accounting for more than 12 percent of the island‘s GDP. While Russia is exploiting its part of the Arctic and China is entering the game, the EU and the US are worried, and not the least NATO, whose spokesperson declared: “Whoever hold Greenland will hold the Arctic. Greenland is the most important strategic location in the Arctic and perhaps the world.”

Apart from the most extensive Arctic shoreline, Russia also has the advantage of the Lomonosov Ridge, which is a shallow underwater ridge stretching from the Russian mainland and across the North Pole. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, states have the exclusive right to exploit resources on and in the continental shelf, if the seabed is more than 370 kms wide and constitutes a “natural prolongation” of the territory of the nation claiming it. The Lomonosov Ridge is actually connected to Russian territory and in February 2013 the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf approved most of Russia’s seabed claim in the Arctic Ocean.

Russia is currently increasing its military power in the Arctic – to enhance homeland defence, protect shipping lines and secure the exploitation of the Arctic’s natural resources. This while China is trying to purchase ports, airfields and other infrastructure that might support their investments in the Arctic.

NATO, in particular Canada and the US, are alarmed by this development and voices are raised claiming that these nations are far too late for participating in the race for the Arctic. NATO already hosts the Thule Airbase on Greenland, while the US and the Danish Ministry of Defence have a declared interest in the new international airports under construction in Nuuk and Ilulissat and in using Greenlandic ports as support bases for the US Navy. The US and the EU are trying to convince Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands to remain within the West’s economic and military realm and limit their interest in cooperating with China and Russia.

Meanwhile, global warming in the Artic is continuing with an ever-increasing speed, while greenhouse gases continue to gather over the Northern Hemisphere. We are all moving towards a disastrous tipping point, where in a sudden blow the entire world ecosystem could change for the worst and make the earth almost uninhabitable. This while humans continue to fight each other and world leaders squabble about who is going to rule over the Arctic and dominate the world. “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic”.

IPS UN Bureau


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