Go North, young man, go North

June 28, 2013

Scott Borgerson writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on the economic bounty that awaits as the Arctic warms and opens its international shipping routes:

The Arctic’s unique geography is an asset unto itself. Viewed from the top of the globe, the region sits at the crossroads of the world’s most productive economies; Icelandair has started offering circumpolar service between Reykjavik, Anchorage, and St. Petersburg, and planned underwater telecommunications cables will link Northeast Asia, the northeastern United States, and Europe. The Arctic’s high latitudes make the region a good place to expand existing ground stations for satellites in polar orbits. With some of the world’s most powerful tides, the Arctic has spectacular hydropower potential, and its geology holds tremendous capacity for geothermal energy, as evidenced by Iceland’s geothermal-powered aluminum smelting industry. Cool temperatures also make the Arctic an attractive place to construct data-storage centers, like the one Facebook is building in northern Sweden. A vault dug into the cool bedrock of the Svalbard Islands stores hundreds of thousands of plant seeds for preservation.

Borgerson envisions a not-too-distant future in which Anchorage and Reykjavik become as dynamic and nearly as important as Singapore and Dubai are today.  But, as exciting as the potential for an ice free Arctic is from a commercial point of view, it is also potentially dangerous from a geopolitical point of view.  The impassability of the frozen north was a physical certainty upon which a century’s worth of geopolitical theory has been built.  Suddenly, nations that believed their northern shores were protected will suddenly be subject to the potential of naval incursions.  An ice free Arctic arguably knocks the foundation of MacKinder’s Heartland Theory right out from under it.

And, of course, there is China.  We have written several times before about China’s desire to become an Arctic power.  Borgerson details some of their more recent efforts:

China sees Iceland as a strategic gateway to the region, which is why Premier Wen Jiabao made an official visit there last year (before heading to Copenhagen to discuss Greenland). China’s state-owned shipping company is eyeing a long-term lease in Reykjavik, and the Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo has been trying for years to develop a 100-square-mile plot of land on the north of the island. In April, Iceland signed a free-trade deal with China, making it the first European country to do so. Whereas the United States closed its Cold War–era military base in Iceland in 2006, China is expanding its presence there, constructing the largest embassy by far in the country, sending in a constant stream of businesspeople, and dispatching its official icebreaker, the Xue Long, or “Snow Dragon,” to dock in Reykjavik last August.

There is a mistaken belief in the United States that the Chinese character for “crisis” is made up of the two characters “danger” and “opportunity.”  While that etymology is incorrect, in the case of a warming Arctic, danger and opportunity are certainly presenting themselves together.



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