China, Outer Space and the Arctic’s melting point

As a cold, dark, dangerous place, the Arctic is often compared to Outer Space. It is a remote, barren land, mostly unknown, and cannot even be reliably penetrated without the use of advanced technology. Funnily enough, the US State Department has a single lawyer dedicated to legal issues concerning both areas. We have discussed previously in this blog the liquid quality of both the Far North and Outer Space: a medium for exchange and interaction, more than colonization and competition.

This intimate relationship between both becomes even more apparent when realizing that any advances made in the Arctic depend on satellites: there is no Arctic if there is no Outer Space. Communications with the rest of the world, subsistence activities, reliable navigation, weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and environmental protection all require space-based technology, and this especially true in the Poles.

As of now, both the Arctic and Space are militarized but not weaponized areas. This means that there are military forces deployed there, but no weaponry is currently deployed there to threaten other powers. In the popular imagination, this calls back to the Cold War era, with images of radar dishes and nuclear warheads guaranteeing missile-based deterrence. In fact, the militarization of the region goes back a little bit further in time. In one of the few historical instances of US territorial invasion, a small Japanese contingent occupied the Aleutians in Alaska for about a year in 1943.

The Battle for the Aleutians was simultaneous to the more famous Battle of Guadalcanal, leading to the first being somewhat overshadowed by the latter. Nonetheless, it featured extremely ferocious fighting, harsh conditions and the only recorded banzai charge in American soil, heroically led, sword in hand, by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki. The Aleutians’ strategic value was due to their ability to control Pacific routes, something US General Billy Mitchell had already predicted in 1935: “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” The Soviets did not participate in any way in the battle, their attention being mostly focused on the Battle of Stalingrad, which was happening also at the same time.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, and probably due to the region’s hostility, the Arctic was conducive to a relative defrosting of Soviet-Western relations during the Cold War (pun absolutely intended). During one of the earliest cooperation efforts by both powers, in 1973, the US and the USSR, along with Norway, Denmark, and Canada, joined forces through the Polar Bear Treaty, which protected said animals from being indiscriminately hunted from aircraft. This cooperation came only a year after the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1972 Interim Agreement on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, both significant diplomatic inroads designed to limit nuclear proliferation. Successive agreements have been signed on this matter, with President Obama signing the third them with Vladimir Putin in 2010.

These small steps in cooperation were taken further in 1982, when the US and the USSR showed a united front in the negotiation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, addressing some territorial and environmental issues which also affected the Arctic. Collaboration in the Arctic outlasted the disintegration of the USSR, and in 1996 the Arctic Council was created, becoming the main instrument of governance in the polar regions. Nowadays, it is still mostly concerned with scientific endeavors and search and rescue operations, avoiding completely the topic of security. It includes all the countries with sovereignty in the Arctic: the US, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Russian-American cooperation in the Arctic survived unscathed the lowest points of mutual relations, including the 2014 Crimean Crisis (still ongoing to some extent). And the same happened with Space: until this year, the West still depended on the Russians and their Soyuz rockets to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Cooperation kept going on steadfastly.

Not even aggressive Russian gas geopolitics have changed this reality. Nord Stream 2 is only another tool of Russian power. The US and its Central-Eastern European allies decry it, while Denmark, Finland, and Sweden welcome it. Seeing how its presence affects most Arctic and Baltic countries, it’s interesting how the project has not affected significantly cooperation efforts in the Polar regions among all involved.

How would the entry of a new player affect this equilibrium? Recently, China started to refer to itself as a “Near Arctic Country”; a generous descriptor, considering its northernmost city is at the latitude of Philadelphia. Just as it has been doing with Outer Space exploration, China has entered the Arctic in full force during the last few years. And by the way, guess who is not allowed to participate in the International Space Station?

The last China polemic is the purchase by mining giant Shandong of a Canadian gold mine in the Nunavut region. The fact has been examined as a possible security risk, especially after the diplomatic tensions between Canada and China related to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, of Huawei, on intellectual-property theft charges. China securing a legal and physical foothold in the Arctic would help it secure its control of gold, hydrocarbon and rare earth minerals in an area of increasing interest, sprinting ahead of its competitors.

Cooperation in the North Pole between major world powers has been steady and solid for decades. Substances, however, tend to modify their physical properties after undergoing a change in their chemical composition. Adding a new element will surely alter the delicate transpolar bonds. What was Trump’s stance on Russia? What is Biden’s stance on China? Is the melting point of the dark northern waves rising or lowering? We’ve said it before: the Arctic is melting fast, and it’s not only about the climate.