The Re-Emergence of the Arctic

The Next Hotspot for Geopolitics

The physical, social, geo-economic and geopolitical characteristics of the Arctic have been encountering certain unparalleled transformations in contemporary times. These changes are likely to spill over into long-term consequences for the constellations of security in the Arctic, which have till now persisted for three decades since the end of the Cold War. In these decades, there has been a growing focus on the security of the people and communities that inhabit the Arctic, as the international community has strived to move away from military or state-centric conceptions of security. However, as several changes beset the Arctic; inter-State perceptions of security and competition are evolving as well. Thus, in order to work towards continuing to maintain peace and security in the region, it is essential to understand how the Arctic has rapidly emerged as a hotspot for geopolitics.

The purpose of this article is first to provide a general definition of what the Arctic constitutes and summarize the legal framework that has underscored the geopolitics of the region. Secondly, it will explore how conditions of climate change have transformed the geopolitics of the Arctic as well as the myriad claims that lie over its territory. Third, it will examine the factors that have caused the re-emergence of the Arctic as a geopolitical hotspot today. Fourth, it will analyze the various competing interests of Russia, China, and United States of America in the Arctic as well as the vulnerability in the region to a ‘New Cold War’. Finally, it will study the role of India in the Arctic.

The Arctic

Seasonally covered in snow, ice, and having extreme cold conditions, the Arctic is one of this planet’s most inimitable environments. The indigenous people, such as the Sami and the Inuit, coexist with the rich biodiversity of the region, which is the repository of more than 22% of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil, gas and mineral deposits according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). On the basis of the various purposes that the Arctic has been used for, the term has also accumulated several definitions, though the most widely accepted conceptualization of geographical delimitation of the region is by the Arctic Circle.

Eight Arctic States
Eight Arctic States

In general therefore, the Arctic “includes all areas north of the Arctic Circle and the associated eight Arctic states, i.e. Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, the United States and Sweden”. This definition is also utilized by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum instituted to promote cooperation, coordination and communication between the Arctic States with the inclusion of the Arctic indigenous community. However, there are other definitions too, that have been propounded by different States depending on their various purposes. For instance, Russia defines the region as including the Arctic Ocean and the littoral States; Iceland, which wants to establish itself as an Arctic coastal State, defines the region as extending to the North Pole and to the Northern Atlantic Ocean; for Norway, the Arctic is the “High North” which consists of the Arctic region and the larger circumpolar area and politically “includes the administrative entities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia that are part of the Barents Cooperation.” Despite these differences in definition, however, these States do conform to the definition accepted by the Arctic Circle. Unlike the Antarctic region, which is governed by the Antarctic Treaty (1959), there is no single international treaty that governs the Arctic. Thus, legal contradictions in Arctic governance and geopolitics emerge because different States have different perspectives of the region, with some wishing to keep on exercising their rule of the area exclusively, and others viewing the Arctic as a “common heritage of mankind” like the Antarctic, space, atmosphere and deep seabed. Two of the most important agreements that form the basis of the Arctic legal framework are the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) signed in 1982, and the Ilulissat Declaration signed in 2008. The former is the foremost legal framework that governs any sea or ocean in the world. Through its various definitions of the Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf, it defines the rights and responsibilities of all coastal and littoral States (including those in the Arctic region) as well as the extent of their maritime jurisdiction. The Arctic region also witnesses competing territorial claims, and the UNCLOS provides a legal basis for the resolution and settlement of disputes. This has been evidenced in how the active disputes regarding the Lomonosov and Mendeleev Ridges between Canada, Russia and Denmark; Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea between Russia and USA; and Barents Sea between Norway and Russia, were settled amicably and peacefully. The Ilulissat Declaration was a result of the meeting between the Arctic Five (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the USA). It sought to convey the sovereignty of these States over the governance of the region through numerous statements including: “the Arctic Ocean is a unique ecosystem, which the five coastal states have a stewardship role in protecting”; “by virtue of their sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in large areas of the Arctic Ocean the five coastal states are in a unique position to address these possibilities and challenges”. Thus, in Arctic geopolitics, these five States have established their predominance in operationalizing cooperation in the region – both internationally and domestically – to mitigate the impacts of climate change and melting polar icecaps on the ecosystem, livelihoods of the indigenous peoples and local inhabitants; to define conditions for the potential exploitation of natural mineral resources; and to establish cooperation mechanisms for scientific research and information-exchange.

Climate Change and Geopolitics

Security in the Arctic region has been made more complex due to climate change, which has had wide-ranging consequences on the physical environment, the livelihoods of the inhabitants, and has led to re-emergence of the region as a geopolitical hotspot. Due to the consistent rise in global temperature, the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than any other region in the world, with the spring and summer months of 2019 (June to August) ranking as the three warmest months in the region since 1979, and with average temperatures 3-4° Celsius above normal. These rising temperatures have affected sea ice, glaciers, snow cover and permafrost, with the linear rate of sea ice decline from 1979 to 2019 being 82400 km2 per year, as scientists are now seriously considering the possibility of an ice-free Arctic in the near future.  As atmospheric warming has resulted in declining spring snow and autumn snow cover, gradual increase in permafrost temperatures, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet at a more rapid rate than the 1990s, considerable transformations have affected the marine and terrestrial ecosystems in many ways. Communities inhabiting the circumpolar regions face inherent difficulties due to the lack of accessibility, connectivity and high price of food and transport, which has been exacerbated by climate change, restricting access to traditional and local sources of food, leading to an increase in resource scarcity.Consequences of Climate Changes Rising temperatures and changes in the precipitation patterns have affected the balance and movement of surface water and groundwater in the region, leading to scarcities in the inhabitants’ access to fresh and clean water. With declining food and water security, the vulnerability to food-related and waterborne diseases has also increased. Heatwaves and high temperatures over several years have also exposed the Arctic to extreme weather conditions that have caused forest fires, such as those in northern Sweden in 2018. Climate change, rising sea temperatures and melting permafrost have brought major changes to the physical geography of the Arctic, which have had effects on the geopolitics of the region. First, it was physically possible until recently to make a distinction between the ice-free areas of the Norwegian coastline and the North Atlantic Ocean, and the predominantly permanently-frozen areas within the Arctic Circle. Thus, these two different geographic areas also witnessed two different kinds of politics. The former has generally encountered regular security politics based on military confrontation and cooperation through the NATO; the latter has experienced more cooperative, amicable and negotiatory international politics among the coastal Arctic States. However, with the melting and contracting of the polar ice, the Arctic now has become vulnerable to developing into a zone of significant great-power competition between China, Russia and the USA. Second, as ice-covered territories have opened up hitherto unnavigable shiplanes and inaccessible resources, there have also occurred debates over sovereignty and international law, which has led to conflictual States referring their disputes about the limits of their Continental Shelf and other maritime borders to the UNCLOS. Though some disputes were successfully settled, several others remain acrimonious.

Reasons for ContemporaryThe Re-Emergence of the Arctic

If the contemporary re-emergence of the Arctic may be viewed as an agglomeration of three distinct factors that have all been transformed by climate change, those would be (i)international shipping routes and ports, (ii) territorial claims, and (iii) oil, gas and minerals.

Melting sea ice has led to the emergence of the North West Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – which are trade routes that could significantly impact global trade dynamics and its costs. Indeed, these shipping routes may be able to cut transport times by 40%, with distances between Asia and Europe reduced by 8047 km, compared to the other routes via the Suez Canal. Routes through the Suez Canal also have to pass through conflictual chokepoints in the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca and the South China Sea, and thus alternative shipping lanes like the NWP or NSR have distinct advantages. For instance, 26 million tonnes of cargo was transported along the NSP in 2019, and it is aimed to be raised to 90 million tonnes by 2030, with corporations in the region also becoming exempt from VAT on exported goods and receiving financial exemptions if they construct seaports. These new trans-Arctic Sea routes and the newly-constructed and refurbished ports from Russia are rapidly altering the political and military interests in the region. As States are changing their behaviour in the Arctic, the erstwhile conditions of low tension and cooperation are changing as well; and there are significant possibilities that the region will become rife with geopolitical competition between US, China and Russia. These newer trade routes not only have effects on transit duration but also impact strategic resource extraction, military activities, and regional fishing and tourism. The NSR was opened by the USSR in the 1930s, but has only become a dependable transit route now due to the melting of polar ice caps, leading to discord over who exercises power over the route. Russia, the USA and Canada have competing claims over the NSR – as the first believes that it lies within its territorial waters; the second disputes this claim; and the third accedes to Russian control of the NSR if Russia recognizes Canadian control over the NWP. China is also working with Russia to develop the NSR given the absence of the USA, and are collaboratively building icebreakers that are essential for navigation. This alliance may have important consequences for the USA’s interests in the region. Similar to the NSR, geopolitical contradictions in the NWP also relate to issues of sovereignty, which are becoming more acute as the ice melts. Canada claims that the route is a part of its internal waters, and thus according to UNCLOS, all ships traversing through it would be subject to Canadian domestic laws. Though Russia recognizes Canada’s claim over the NWP, the USA and the European Union argue that the NWP is an international strait “with a non-suspendable right of transit”, which has added to already-existing apprehension about potential environmental disasters and human insecurity in the region. Observers have signalled alarm over the possibility of terrorists or illegal fishing or trafficking infringing upon Canadian sovereignty through this route and the scarcely-populated Arctic region. Though Russian militarization of the Arctic has been a substantial security concern for the USA, hydrocarbon and military-oriented ports are being rapidly developed in the region, with Russia re-operationalizing more than 50 Soviet bases and establishing a more solid strategic presence in the area than any other State. Russia may be motivated by considerations about the capabilities of second-strike assets, protection of commercial interests and economic challenges in the region. In Mike Pompeo’s (the ex- Secretary of State, USA) opinion, Russian action in the Arctic is similar to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and these aggressive forays to development and hydrocarbon extraction could permanently alter the geopolitics of the region. As China declares itself as a “Near-Arctic State”, its cooperation with Russia on the development of commercial shipping and natural resource extraction in the region may currently be approximated to an unprecedented US$ 160 billion. It is also planning to collaborate with Russia to develop the Polar Silk Road as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by 2025, which would begin from Dalian to encompass the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and conclude at Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and significantly reduce Chinese trading distances and costs through the Arctic.

The Geopolitical Hotspot

The Arctic has occupied a prominent place in the geo-strategies of the USA and USSR since the Cold War, and thus it is understandable why its geopolitics have assumed pivotal status again today. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘Arctic Zone of Peace’ speech in 1987, Murmansk, there have varying degrees of stability, conflict and cooperation in the region, which have come into contemporary question due to the effects of climate change in the region. These biophysical changes have precipitated competing conceptions of the region as a resource hotspot benefitting economic and energy security, which has subsequently produced exhibitions of nationalism, as the littoral Arctic states have laid claim to the maritime space. In 2007, the Russian expedition ‘Arkitika’ consisting of two small submarines, planted the Russian flag over the North Pole seabed, and asserted that the Lomonosov Ridge was a part of the Russian Continental Shelf, with the objective of gaining exclusive rights to the immense quantities of hydrocarbon on the seabed. Referring to the UNCLOS Article 76 defining the limits of a nation’s claim over marine resources through EEZs and Continental Shelf, the Russian Natural Resources Ministry claimed that the crust structure of the Ridge is consistent with the Russian continental crust, thus making it a part of Russia’s Continental Shelf. This claim is still disputed by Denmark and Canada, who in 2014, filed a claim in the UN Commission related to the connection between Greenland and Lomonosov. Claims and counter-claims have continued over the years, though the disputed legal status of the Ridge has not caused any serious volatility. Though most questions of sovereignty and exclusive exploitation of mineral resources have already been settled in the Arctic, the US has engaged in conflicts with Russia and Canada over the unclaimed areas, in the Bering Sea and the Beaufort Sea, respectively. Canada and Denmark also have competing territorial claims in the Davis Strait, the Hans Island in the Nares Strait, and over the Northwest Passage. Russia and Norway are still disputing over the fishing rights in the EEZ around Svalbard, though they have resolved the Barents Sea dispute in 2010. In the opinion of the Arctic Institute, though there are little chances that conflict over political and maritime territorial boundaries would occur in the Arctic, conflicts over shipping routes and minerals could exacerbate these conflicts and result in geopolitical tensions.

According to the USGS, the Arctic contains 90 billion barrels of oil, 1669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, which entails that as the sea ice melts, the Arctic will emerge as the new energy frontier and become embroiled in a scramble for resources. Russia’s development blueprint for the Arctic also looks to natural resource development, and provides several tax incentives, including a 5% tax rate on the first 15 years of oil production and a 50% tax deduction on shelf exploration, which are predicted to produce around US$230 billion in new investments in the Russian Arctic region. Since 2011, oil companies have been pursuing exploration rights in a Baffin Bay, which is a hydrocarbon-rich region on the western coast of Greenland, with the USA and Canada, and Russia and Denmark disagreeing on navigation rights through the Canadian Arctic Sea route and access to underlying seabed, fisheries and natural gas deposits, respectively. In 2011, a remarkable diplomatic meeting between the foreign ministers of the Arctic States occurred in Nuuk, Greenland, which emphasized that the transformation underway in the Arctic will have far-reaching consequences for sea routes, fishing and tourism, and the danger of conflict between competing interests for resource exploration in the region could only be resolved through peace and cooperation via the Arctic Council. This meeting was also a precursor to several others that occurred in the following years that discussed a variety of issues, including oil-spill cleanup, territorial disagreements, and weighing of economic development and resource exploitation against the environment and the security of the indigenous Arctic peoples. The US, in fact, has long been focused on the “real security and growing economic interests in Greenland”, with companies like Chevron and Exxon-Mobil pursuing a four-company consortium to access oil and gas licenses off the western coast of the country. Though Donald Trump’s proposal to purchase Greenland was eschewed as ludicrous by Danish and Greenlandic officials and denigrated as an unnecessary diplomatic incident, this is not the first US proposal with such demand, as various US administrations have wanted to own the exclusive rights to mineral and oil exploration in the Greenland ice-sheets, and dissuade Russian and Chinese military and economic endeavours in the region. The US has also under the Trump administration, provided US$12 million in development aid to Greenland to assist towards “sustainable economic development”, and bolster the Greenlandic Ministry of Mineral Resources and the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Research’s forays into conducting scientific study to develop its natural resources in a “competitive and transparent” way. Chinese diplomats have also aggressively pursued Denmark, Sweden and Iceland through lucrative trade deals, to develop the Arctic mining industry through the import of Chinese labour, which would also be crucial to the telecommunications industry and military-guidance systems. The geopolitical consequences of increasing Chinese presence in the region have frightened the EU, which has offered millions in development aid to dissuade the Arctic States from allowing China exclusive access to its rare earth minerals through “raw mineral diplomacy”. Chinese companies with close government ties have also invested in Canada, acquiring two oil companies that would allow them access to Arctic drilling; and in Greenland, where they are funding the construction of mines for oil and precious gems discoveries, including an iron ore mine in Nuuk as well. Though the USA has raised concerns that these activities could lead to resource plundering in the region, the Arctic States, Russia and China have vehemently disagreed.

In May 2021, Russia assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council until 2023. Much to the distaste of the West, Russia has engaged in extensive militarization and industrialization of its north in order to gain exclusive access to the natural resources in the Arctic and over the NSR, and to re-establish its pre-eminence in the region.Russia in Arctic It is refurbishing old Soviet air and naval bases, desirous of establishing a multi-layered coastal defence system and achieving area-denial capabilities against USA. Amidst this environment, there is a shifting balance of power in the Arctic towards China away from the USA, accompanied by increasing Cold War-esque rivalries between USA and Russia, and a developing strategic convergence between Russia and China. As the global balance of power tilts towards China away from the USA, and the latter’s share of global trade and GDP declines amidst it turning inwards, China has declared itself a near-Arctic State and is challenging US hegemony. China has improved its diplomatic, military and economic capacity exponentially over the last twenty years, and though there is no prima facie reason why the US and China should collide in the Arctic, the latter’s salami-slicing and debt-trap strategy are bound to antagonize the former. The US is especially concerned about Chinese investments in Greenland and Iceland, which have become nodes of diplomatic scuffle between the two great powers. China has invested in the mineral resources of Greenland and geothermal energy in Iceland, is developing a ‘data silk road’ jointly with Finland, and is constructing a new airport out of a non-operational naval base in Nuuk. This shift in the balance of power between two militarily capable antagonistic States does make the Arctic vulnerable to geopolitical instability and tension as a strategic spillover. Militarization of the Arctic had occurred during the Cold War. Both the USSR and the USA built nuclear deterrence capabilities in the northern Arctic due to the Arctic Ocean’s geographical proximity to the USA and USSR, easing the path of ballistic missiles and the remoteness of the region assuring second-strike capabilities. As Russia increasingly and expeditiously militarizes the Arctic, it is clear that it is a military and economic superpower with both offensive and defensive capabilities in the region. It inaugurated a new Unified Strategic Command called “OSK Sever,” in 2014, to reinforce the security of its long Arctic borders and protect its interests in the region. In the Kola Peninsula, it has constructed 16 new deep-water ports, 475 new military sites including bases in the northern Arctic Circle, and sophisticated anti-ship missiles and air-defence systems; with the intention to secure its strategic interests and power projection capabilities into the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and beyond. Despite its geographical seclusion, the geopolitical environment of the Arctic is not isolated from the evolving structural tensions between Russia and USA. Military and strategic spillovers of other events elsewhere – such as Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and the retaliatory sanctions imposed on it by the USA and the West, the expulsion of Russia from the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, geo-strategic tensions in the Black Sea – all have direct and indirect consequences for Arctic security and geopolitics. NATO-operated vessels in the Barents Sea clash with Russian ones frequently, with the Russian military jamming GPS telecommunication channels during the “Trident Juncture” NATO exercise in Norway. The Kola Peninsula Russian base is very near to the NATO bases in Norway. Five out of the seven Arctic States are NATO allies, and Finland and Sweden are NATO enhanced opportunities partners. Thus, the involvement of the NATO also complicates the geopolitics of the Arctic and heightens the possibility of a worsening of tensions. As Russia explored a ‘pivot to Asia’ with growing strategic convergences with China, it is clear that in the ongoing geopolitical tussle in the Arctic – Russia and China are on one side, challenging the US-led international order and aiming to offset the USA. The US has alleged that the two nations are exploring joint air and missile capabilities (S-400) in the Arctic. China has converged with Russia in the Arctic due to the congruency in their interests, with the former desiring access to mineral resources and the latter needing infrastructure development (which is a strategy China has used all through its BRI), which is most palpable in the energy sector. China’s National Petroleum Corporation and its State-controlled Silk Road Fund collectively hold a 29.9% share in the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) extraction project, which was bolstered by the USA’s blacklisting of the COSCO Shipping tanker fleet (which is essential for LNG export off the Yamal Peninsula) in 2019, affecting both Chinese energy security and Russia’s hydrocarbon exports-led economy. As China and Russia move closer to one another, experts signal fears of a ‘New Cold War’ between them and the USA in the strategic triangle of the Arctic. Others do caution against such alarmist declarations, however, as the Arctic actually has multiple centres of influence in the region, especially after the admittance of Singapore, India, Japan and South Korea as Observers in the Arctic Council in 2013. This kind of division of influence is unlikely to coalesce into bipolarity, and there are several opportunities for all the States in the Arctic to cooperate on issues like scientific research, mitigation of climate change, and maintenance of international law and its institutions of diplomacy through close and amicable collaboration.

India in Arctic

In January 2021, India released a new draft Arctic Policy ‘Roadmap For Sustainable Engagement’ that explores the possibilities for Indian engagement in the region for climate research, environmental monitoring, maritime cooperation and energy security. It also focuses on economic and human development cooperation, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building. India in ArcticThough Indian territory is quite far from the Arctic just like Antarctica, India’s primary interest in the region is because climate and weather conditions in the Arctic influence the atmospheric, oceanographic and biogeochemical cycles of the global ecosystem, consequently impacting the Indian agrarian economy, rural sector, food security, coastal erosion, monsoon patterns, water security – all of which are essential for national security and development. As India is a tripolar nation, this Policy furthers the goals of India’s Arctic Mission to better comprehend the interlinkages between climate change, melting Arctic ice and Indian monsoons through harmonizing polar research across the Arctic, Antarctica and the Himalayas. If India is able to incorporate a comprehensive understanding of the climate and temperature conditions in the Arctic into its climate models, it will improve the accuracy of its climate and monsoon forecast.  India also has a research station in the Arctic, named Himadri, in Norway since 2008, and is aiming to expand its Arctic observation work across the region. In ex-President of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson’s opinion, India’s interest in the Arctic is reasonable because “the future of India will be, to a large extent, determined by the Arctic and the future of the Arctic will also be determined by what takes place in India and other Asian countries.” India is also conscious about the potential for hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic, as the Policy notes that the region possesses reserves “mineral deposits – copper, phosphorus, niobium, platinum-group elements and rare earth”, as well as clean and renewable energy resources like hydropower, windpower, solar, geothermal and ocean-energy microgrids in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. India is also aiming to cooperate in the Vostok Oil Project with Rosneft, a Russian national oil company, to develop three fields in the Vankor area, build a 600 km-long pipeline to Arctic’s northern coast from Payakha along the Yenisey River, and to engage in offshore mineral extraction, ports, railways and airports. Though the Policy is ambitious, scientific experts have signalled their discomfort at the fact that it is amalgamating economic and human development to reinforce India’s geopolitical interests in the Arctic, which may exclude the indigenous population and the scientific community and only on the political interests of policymakers.


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