The Geostrategic Challenge of the Arctic
The great German jurist Carl Schmitt said that the history of peoples is always a history of land appropriation. The conquest/acquisition of new spaces has always a decisive influence on States’ geopolitical position. Indeed, a land acquisition always implies the risk of destabilising a precise hegemonic status or established order. On a terrestrial surface that is almost entirely seized by man, there are still two areas of competition between great powers: the Arctic region and the outer space surrounding the globe. On this occasion we will address the former.
Translation by: Marco Ghisetti
US President Donald J. Trump’s proposal to buy Greenland, and the subsequent cancellation of the Copenhagen meeting with the Danish political leadership once the offer was declined, have caused a sensation in 2019.
However, what appeared to be an “unorthodox President’s” extemporaneous statement actually had very specific geopolitical reasons. And in order to better understand these motivations, it will be useful to examine in detail the statements made by Mark T. Esper (Defence Secretary of State) at London’s Royal United Services Institute and the US Department Defence’s Report on Arctic Strategy to the Congress of June 2019.
Esper’s statements are particularly telling. Indeed, the Secretary of Defence repeatedly mentioned the threat that Russian aggressiveness and Chinese economic power would pose to current security and global order.
“Competition between great powers” – Esper told the London audience – “is the primary concern for US national security”. The US, according to the former West Point student, is already dealing with this issue, but it is becoming necessary for “freedom loving nations” to acknowledge this threat and play their role in keeping the world safe.
Moreover, China and Russia would pose specific threats to “American prosperity”: threats that in the future may worsen if not promptly addressed.
In conclusion, Esper, in full compliance with Trumpist course of actions, suggested that US allies, and particularly NATO member States, should increase their military spending.
Secretary of Defence’s statements perfectly echo the substance of the aforementioned report to the Congress on Arctic strategy, which explicitly mentions Russia and China’s “malicious and coercive” behaviour, a “holistic approach”to protecting American national interests in the Arctic region and the growth of Washington’s influence in the area. This report, in turn, echoes the 2017 National Security Strategy in which special emphasis is placed on “protecting the American way of life” and, once more, on “promoting American prosperity, to be preserved even by strength”.
Moreover, the report to Congress in June echoes almost in its entirety the 2013 Arctic strategy document issued under the Obama administration, proving, if proof were needed, that regardless of the of the external aspects of Trump’s political shows, there is a substantial line of continuity between the two presidencies.
In this regard, it is also undeniable that the US had already started to disregard the Iranian nuclear deal well before Trump’s election.
I have often argued that Trumpism is nothing more than a (more or less) desperate last-ditch attempt to save “American globalisation”, and that the electoral motto Make America Great Again has simply resulted in a new arms race and the more or less forced militarisation of the regions subject to strategic competition between great powers.
The renewed interest in the Arctic fits right into this context. Limiting or preventing Sino-Russian expansion in the region means, first of all, avoiding one of those “acquisition of new spaces” that could put North American global hegemony in crisis.
The Value of the Arctic
Being located at the intersection of 3 continental shelves, with 14 million square kilometres, 13% of world’s oil reserves, and 30% of gas reserves yet to be exploited, the Arctic is an area of huge geostrategic value. The exploitation of such a wealth, also in terms of commercial and military routes, would result in either the unchanged conservation of North American hegemony or its definitive overcoming should Washington lose the challenge with its competitors.
Hence, it comes with no surprise that the aforementioned report to the Congress on Arctic strategy makes obvious mention of the objective of “limiting the ability of China and Russia to exploit the region as a corridor for strategic competition to the global projection of US power”.
In fact, the opening up the Arctic route, by avoiding the Suez Canal, would shorten the travel time from Asia to Europe by 10 days and would seriously undermine US control on energy flows. Furthermore, as far as Sino-Russian geo-strategic goals are concerned, the Arctic route would be safer and more stable than the land corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative, which are likely to pass through areas with a strong presence of terrorist groups that are widely fed and exploited by the intelligence services of forces that are hostile to the evolution of the global order in a multipolar sense.
Indeed, the Arctic route plays a major role in the Belt and Road project. China, which is a permanent observer in the Arctic Council, has already invested quite a few resources in the region. And North America’s interest in buying Greenland is part of the plan aimed at countering Chinese economic expansion in the area. This expansion follows the lines drawn by the Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, where the spirit of Chinese infrastructural project is interpreted in terms of “cooperation, openness, inclusiveness, learning and mutual benefit”. In this 2017 declaration, the relationship between man and the oceans is interpreted as a exploitation of maritime routes aimed at achieving common development.
The Strategic Value of Greenland
Greenland is at the heart of the challenge for the Arctic as its subsoil is estimated to hold the world’s sixth largest reserve of rare earths: a key component in the construction of technological and military equipment. In addition, there are other key resources (gold, uranium, diamonds, oil). In this regard, a project aimed at extracting these resources is already co-managed by a Chinese company: the Shenghe Resources Holding LTD.
Rare earths are the main appealing factor to the United States. Thanks to them, China (which controls between 85% and 95% of their global production) is winning the trade war against the US. It is no coincidence that they are one of the few Chinese goods that the US has excluded from tariffs and restrictions.
Taking possession of Greenland and starting the definitive exploitation of the immense resource in its subsoil would undoubtedly allow the US to reduce its dependence on China’s rare earths and to gain total control over both Arctic extremities of the North American continent: Alaska to the west and the so-called “Green Island” to the east.
It goes without saying that as early as 1860, even before the purchase of Alaska from Russia, William H. Seward (Abraham Lincoln’s future Secretary of State) predicted that the Arctic would become the northern outpost of the United States.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Trumpist proposal, like the one put forward by the Truman administration at the end of the Second World War, met with a negative response. However, the almost complete subjection of the island’s political class towards Washington is well known. And it cannot be ruled out the possibility that Washington takes advantage of this influence to prevent an excessive Chinese expansion into the Danish protectorate.
The Challenge in the Great North between China and the US
But Greenland is not the only US worry. In addition to commissioning the construction of seven icebreakers, China has also shown considerable interest in the construction of the Helsinki-Tallin submarine tunnel, which would enable China to complete an infrastructure network covering the entire Eurasian continent.
Paradoxically, in this race for the Arctic, the US has found itself suffering a heavy technological gap if compared to its main competitors. Russia, as a matter of fact, besides having created a Strategic Interforce Command for the Arctic as early as 2014, has the largest fleet for navigation in cold waters (39 icebreakers, 6 of which are nuclear-powered) and it has recently completed the construction of the first floating atomic power plant. This power plant, after a 5000 km journey along the Russian Arctic, was promptly placed in Pevek, in the far northeast, where it will provide energy to the region’s industrial and mining plants.
In addition, if the “geological forecasts” were to be confirmed by the facts, the exploitation of Russia’s western Arctic shelf would give Moscow an energy power projection even higher than that of the US. It is therefore not surprising that Russia has also installed S-400 missile batteries on the Kola and Kamchatka peninsulas to ensure the region’s defence.
It is clear that the US will once again respond to this dual geostrategic and technological challenge by militarising the Arctic region and pushing the costs onto its allies’ shoulders. And it is equally clear that the Arctic race can be interpreted as a new chapter in the struggle between land and sea powers that has characterised the history of peoples since antiquity. However, at least on this occasion, the North American thalassocratic power seems to be really forced to defend itself.