The Polar Silk Road: China Plans Deeper Collaboration With Russia In The Arctic, But How Will This Affect Future Conflict Over Arctic Resources?

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Essentially every country with any territory anywhere near the Arctic has by now staked out claims to offshore resources well beyond their own territorial waters there, largely based on arguments relating to the extent of relevant continental shelves.

The Arctic region, for those that need to have this spelled out for them, is home to a very large portion of the untapped (and thus still concentrated) mineral and fossil fuel reserves of the world. Unsurprisingly, what this means is that a majority of the most powerful governments and corporations around the world are now considering ways in which to loot the region.

The barriers in the way of such an outcome are fairly substantial though — the Arctic is still relatively inaccessible, the seas there are still some of the stormiest in the world, and development costs for fossil fuel extraction and mining are thus comparatively high. And then of course there are the political barriers as well — e.g. everyone wants it, so everyone has claimed it as theirs (“truth” as determined by force thus remains as the most probable outcome).

With those facts in mind, it’s interesting to consider the recent announcement by China (via a white paper discussing national strategy relating to the Arctic) that the country would be aiming to work more closely with Russia in the future in the region. The plan is reportedly to create a new “Polar Silk Road” to complement the existing “belt and road” plans further south.

While the governments of China and Russia have both repeatedly stated that their interests in the Arctic are essentially commercial, the reality is that commerce, politics, and resources are always bedfellows. (As an example, China considers the Northwest Passage to be international waters, apparently, while Canada considers it to be internal waters.)

The situation as regarding the US, Canada, Norway, and Denmark/Greenland isn’t much different — well, except that Russia and China are much, much better prepared for potential conflict and commerce in the Arctic than the US is, much less Norway or Denmark/Greenland.

While many Americans have been in denial for quite some time (and remain so) with regard to the state of the US military, the fact is that the US has long since lost an incontestable position at the top of heap — if the US was to truly get into a war with another major power the result would likely simply be that both countries would be devastated, with whatever countries that managed to stay out of it completely being the beneficiaries (as is often the case).

That reality may be unpalatable to the Americans that have convinced themselves that they have some sort of destiny as the unofficial rulers of the world — or to bring their own idiosyncratic and outdated form of government to the rest of the world for that matter (or to benefit from an imperial wealth pump that doesn’t officially exist) — but it is at this point true.

So where does this leave us? Is a China/Russia alliance now essentially set to dominate the Arctic region, no matter what? Has the US spent the last half-century squandering its inheritance, and destroying its own future?

I don’t actually have answers to those questions, and the situation as regarding a possible future looting of the Arctic is rather fluid, so who can say for sure at this point what exactly will happen.

I will leave you right now, though, with some select excerpts from an interesting article discussing the matter that was published recently by Reuters:

“It’s a dynamic that brings particular challenge for the United States. In part because Washington has never regarded the High North as a major strategic priority, the area has been seen as falling within Russia’s sphere of influence. Now China too is stepping up its plans to become a major player in the region.

“Speaking to Congress in May, the commandant of the US Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, revealed that Washington was considering fitting anti-ship cruise missiles to its latest generation of icebreakers, a major departure from these vessels’ primary research and rescue role…In fact, Russia’s military expansion in the Arctic Circle far exceeds that of any other nation, and it has other nearby nations alarmed — particularly Norway and Canada, which have vast swathes of largely unpopulated northern territory as well as offshore oil, gas, and mineral interests they worry may be increasingly challenged.

“As Reuters reported last year, Moscow has plowed more resources into its northern defense than at any point since the Berlin Wall fell, in some cases giving it even greater capability and reach in the region than it enjoyed before 1989. That includes creating or reopening 6 military outposts and building 3 new, large nuclear icebreakers to add to its already 40-strong fleet…While US and other NATO subs might potentially penetrate such waters undetected, Moscow’s defenses would make it all but impossible for any surface shipping to survive near Russian territory in any war.

“The first new US icebreaker is unlikely to enter service before 2023, the US Coast Guard says — but that will be contingent on additional funding this year that is not yet guaranteed. The US military’s only operational heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is seen as incapable of remaining in service more than another 5 years…China’s first indigenously-built icebreaker, Snow Dragon 2, launched in December and will operate alongside its namesake, built by Ukraine for Beijing and put in service in 1994. Neither of the Snow Dragons is believed to be armed but, given the change in direction of other Arctic-operating navies, that could easily change.

“In truth, though, it is the commercial potential in the Arctic — and the diplomatic campaigns behind it — that may be even more significant. And it’s an area in which America looks even more likely to be left behind…Russia is the only country with enough icebreakers to reliably escort other (countries’) shipping through still periodically frozen waters, and that gives it massive influence over regional shipping patterns.”

This matters, to say it again, because the Arctic is home to a very large portion of the world’s remaining concentrated fossil fuel and mineral reserves. The fact that these reserves have remained unexploited to date means that there’s a very real potential there for economical extraction, despite the challenges of the region.

Continuing: “The United States may never have to fight the war in the Arctic — not least because it is very hard to imagine how one might begin without sparking a wider global conflict. But that doesn’t mean it may not find itself eased out of what could become an important region without any fight at all.”

Something to consider.

To close things up here, you might be wondering why a site named CleanTechnica has published an article discussing fossil fuel reserves in the Arctic and the geopolitics surrounding them, but the reasoning is quite clear. To oversimplify, there are two paths forward from here: continued “growth” and exploitation of limited mineral and fossil fuel resources, with accompanying resource wars and population collapse; or an intelligent draw-down of the now overgrown human population, with an accompanying draw-down of resource consumption levels and reliance upon non-renewable resources.

At this point it’s too late for the coming century to be anything but incredibly confused, disorienting, bloody, and disease-ridden — for everybody. But it is possible still to limit the intensity and ridiculousness of what’s coming through intelligent action.

Since many of those reading this likely have minds that have been overly shaped by popular entertainment and beliefs, I’ll recommend here that those holding the unexamined belief that they (or their country, or ideological group, or religion, etc.) will benefit from — or even comprehend — what’s happening, take a look back at earlier periods of time that could serve as a proxy.

The late Bronze Age Collapse in the Mediterranean is probably the best option for those in the Western world — for while the event mostly only directly involved those in Europe, North Africa, Anatolia, West Asia, and the Near-East, the intensity of the changes and collapse that occurred are likely very similar to what’s now in store. Just imagine worse.

As stated above, though, one always has the choice to make changes or to alter a course of action. While the path that the world now seems to be on is a bleak one, individual actions do add up to something, so keep that in mind when making the choices that make up your everyday life.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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