Cold War? Arctic Geopolitics Invites the Digitalization of the Arctic

The Arctic’s wild allure encourages attempts to tame its land and seas. However, once falling global temperatures in the 16th century froze passageways and rendered the Arctic untraversable for much of the year, trade and exploration dropped off. In the 19th century, industrial motivations renewed desires for an Arctic passage and fueled expeditions. All such attempts failed, however, and it was not until 1906 that Roald Amundsen was able to chart a course through the region. Despite the extreme difficulty of navigation, the promise of Arctic trade routes continues to tantalize regional players and global superpowers alike. Recently, tensions regarding Arctic geopolitics have flared up, fueled by new technology and greater resource ambitions.

Climate change is one of the most defining geopolitical issues of the current moment. The Arctic sea’s ice, which poses the greatest danger to navigators and explorers, is melting at an alarming rate. Current models predict that the Arctic could be free of non-seasonal ice by the late 2070s. Temperatures are also increasing rapidly, catalyzing changes throughout the entire Arctic ecosystem. Nations with the ability to exert military and economic influence in the region are poised to profit from increased trade and regional activity. As historic shipping routes and economic centers face an impending climate catastrophe, the Arctic will produce new shipping routes. In fact, the development of several trade routes close to coastlines has already begun.

As is the trend with much of its political and economic clout, American power in the Arctic is being contested. The rugged and extreme environment requires powerful ships such as nuclear-powered submarines and large icebreakers. Therefore, the primary method for countries to demonstrate their power in the area is by stationing fleets. However, U.S. foreign policy has not deemed controlling the Arctic a priority. Furthermore, attempts to approve funding for new icebreakers have not fared well in Congress, meaning that the limited budget is unable to fulfill the coast guard’s various duties. Other nations, such as China and Russia, have taken advantage of American ambivalence by enlarging their fleets. NATO as a whole, and the Nordic countries, in particular, have also been collaborating to form a new Arctic strategy and develop closer military ties in the region. 

In addition to the technological race, Russia and other powers are pushing an agenda of Arctic digitalization. Russia has been striving to digitize in recent years as a way to stimulate its plateauing economy and to restore its former prestige. Covid-19 prompted the Russian Prime Minister to declare that mass digitization will become part of the “new normal.” Considering over one-fifth of Russia’s territory lies within the Arctic, a large part of which lacks access to internet communication, developing this region would be at the forefront of their policies. Russia believes that greater connectivity and standards of living, combined with a more favorable climate, will reverse trends of out-migration and allow for a greater position in global trade. Russia has also begun opening military bases on previously remote islands and coastlines, positioning themselves to enforce their will on the rapidly changing region.

China, while further away from the Arctic, has also invested both militarily and economically in the Arctic region. In 2018, they released an official plan to forge a “Polar Silk Road” by laying submarine communications cables and creating shipping routes. In addition, China’s two icebreaker fleets are already as powerful as those of the United States, with a third fleet under construction. Specifically, China stated that it would use its newfound power to “strengthen technological innovation, environmental protection, [and] resource utilization” in the Arctic. China has made use of its position as a “near-Arctic” nation (which Mike Pompeo dismissed as unreasonable) to justify not only developing Arctic technology and shipping lanes but also harvesting resources in the area. China, in particular, seeks to develop green energy systems in the Arctic alongside the gathering of “oil, gas and mineral resources.” Such a plan is feasible considering China’s rapid power expansion both nationally and internationally.

To many nations, the Arctic’s potential boons and its natural bounty are worth the initial costs of digitizing and developing fleets and computer systems. While the age of colonization seems to have ended long ago, the revitalization of the once inhabitable region promises resurgent interest from global powers. The strategic location of the Arctic brings another theater for the emerging, declining, and stagnating nations of the sub-Arctic region to compete over regional power. It seems that any semblance of cooperation has gone out the door. While the Arctic may be rapidly warming, the chill of another “Cold War” is already on the horizon.