Last week, Norway implied that it can prevent China from acquiring observer rights in the Arctic Council. Such a step would probably be the most tangible outcome of the diplomatic conflict that occurred between Beijing and Oslo back in 2010. That year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Bernardas Gailius wrote in lrt.lt on 4 February.
Then, Beijing announced that it was terminating all top-level relations with Oslo.
Presently, anonymous Norwegian diplomats state that it may be difficult to support the unfriendly Chinese in the Arctic Council. However, the Chinese claims are actively supported by Denmark; neither Finland or Iceland, nor Sweden, which is currently presiding over the Arctic Council, has raised any objections. Five out of eight actual Council members are Northern countries; thus, their position can significantly affect its decisions. The fact that Denmark and Norway can partially influence the fate of China witnesses the changing outlook of the world.
When the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was drafted in 1989, and even when the Arctic Council was established in 1996, it did not seem particularly important yet. These initiatives were significant for the countries directly bordering the Arctic, i.e. Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Canada, the US, and Soviet Union (later, Russia). Quite naturally, they formed the nucleus of the Arctic Council. For the larger part of Western Europe, the North Pole was still very distant. Today, the situation is essentially different. The UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Poland are already observers of the Arctic Council; and, without China, as mentioned above, India, Brazil, Japan, and other countries are lining up at the threshold. What exactly is happening up there in the North?
The significance of the Arctic has radically changed for two reasons: the discovery of new, natural energy resources and the possibility to open up new transport routes. These changes were caused by global warming (at least, in the Arctic) and the growing technical power of humanity in the 21st century. When it became possible to explore the Arctic for new resources, it emerged that the cold depths of the ocean may actually be hiding nearly a quarter of all the unused oil and gas resources in the world. On the other hand, if ships could, at least for the greater part of the year, take the Western (Canadian coast) or Eastern (Russian coast) route across the Arctic in order to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and vice versa, navigation expenditure would decrease considerably, which would lead to changes in trade throughout the world. That is why the Arctic, for about a decade now, is no longer a territory of crazy scientists and romantic travellers, but rather a plum desired by far-sighted politicians.
The recent history of the Arctic is a good example as to how fast property, which is not even acquired yet, changes outwardly stable agreements and beliefs. Were you taught at school that the Arctic Ocean does not belong to anyone and that the international community is amicably conducting scientific research there? Forget all that! Today, the Arctic is literally being conquered – just no longer by dog sleds, but by specially trained military forces. Because the new territory is not clearly divided, it is attracting everyone. Russia, Denmark, and Canada are practically most active in seeking to extend the borders of their continental shelves and, thus, appropriate the North Pole itself. The other members of the Arctic Council are more reserved, but they will not let themselves be wronged.
Certainly not everyone undertakes such campaigns of public relations as the famous planting of a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. However, nobody is joking about territorial claims, and the militarisation of the Arctic proves that. Russia and Denmark announced the formation of special Arctic military forces, and Canada even organised large-scale military training for the white bears in the North last year. Actually, one should not forget that, from the times of the Cold War already, Russia and the US considered the Arctic as a potential battlefield.
Not all political analysts speak as enthusiastically about the North perspectives. What raises doubts is, first of all, the reality, pace, and extent of global warming. However, by looking at the passions that are already seething about the North, it can be clearly concluded that whatever global warming will not do will be completed by human will. Even if warming is not real, it has already formed a conviction that the Northern ice can be broken – literally. Today, environmental conditions almost do not matter when it comes to conquering the Arctic.
This opening of the Northern routes and resources can reform the world in numerous ways. However, what is most important to us is that this battle over the Arctic is ‘restructuring’ the West. The geopolitical status of Canada is changing significantly, and cooperation among the Northern-Baltic countries, the UK, and the US in such a context acquires new meaning. These countries are sometimes already referred to as the ‘mini-NATO’. In the future, they can be interlinked even closer not only by their similar point of view towards Russia, but also by their geographical position with respect to the Arctic. Moreover, with the world drifting to the North, Oslo or Stockholm might gain a similar or even bigger ‘weight’ than Berlin or Paris, as the history of China’s admission to the Arctic Council shows. This is what global warming can do. The Mediterranean region will become Africa, and the Baltic region – the new Mediterranean region. However, one must still live long enough to see that. For now, it is the real ‘Arctic’ here in Vilnius.