On Monday, a Danish container ship – the Venta Maersk – set off from Busan in South Korea packed with Russian fish and Korean electronics.
On September 22 it will dock at Bremerhaven in Germany.
The bit in between could change the world.
Thanks to climate change, the Venta was able to take a short cut over the top of the globe – the first container ship to do so – through the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, above the desolate Siberian coast, past worried polar bears, melting permafrost and huge new Chinese-funded gas fields, through Arctic waters that Russia wants to control, and down past Norway, where this week a group of academics, analysts and policymakers were fretting over what it all means.
They gathered in Tromso, Norway’s northernmost city, 350 kilometres above the Arctic Circle. It’s dark here for 48 days in winter, but this week Tromso was warmer than Sydney.
The experts were invited to Tromso by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German think tank whose board of directors includes both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her widely-touted successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
The one-day seminar, titled “Changes in the Arctic Security Landscape”, announced it was time to look at “current and future security challenges in the Arctic”.
“We are moving into a new Cold War,” one attendee said (the seminar was held under the Chatham House Rule, to encourage frankness, so speakers cannot be identified). “The Arctic is caught between East and West … and it is moving to the East.
“We’re in a different territory now.”
Some talked about the effects of climate change on the nuclear deterrent, others about the temptation of mineral riches in Greenland. Many rued the US retreat from international affairs. All were concerned about the Arctic’s role in climate change. They pondered if treaties and multilateral forums will be enough to keep the great powers reined in as this new playground opens up.
Outside, the sun struck blue sparks off Tromso’s harbour, and a French navy patrol boat set out to sea after a friendly visit in this increasingly tense part of the world.
It’s not just commercial shipping making moves in the Arctic. The rapidly thinning sea ice is making way for warships, as the world’s great powers look north and see untapped wealth and strategic opportunities – or threats.
Russia is modernising its Northern Fleet, the biggest of the country’s four fleets, which includes Russia’s only aircraft carrier. In June it held its biggest “alarm exercise” in a decade off the coast of Norway (which it neglected to warn about the operation), sending 36 naval vessels steaming out of the Barents Sea including a missile cruiser, anti-submarine ship and destroyer, The Barents Observer reported, firing cruise missiles, mines and torpedoes.
The nuclear and diesel-powered warships were joined by 20 aircraft and 150 rocket and artillery weapons systems deployed along the Kola Peninsula, in a demonstration of how Russia would react to a massive enemy attack.
Norwegian fighter jets scrambled to meet the opposition off their north-east coast. Shortly after, NATO warships sailed north in a manoeuvre the alliance claimed had “long been planned”. The US Navy’s Arctic strategy, released in 2014 and intended to last 16 years, was updated this year because “the damn thing melted”, as Navy Secretary Richard Spencer put it.
And there’s another player in the game – potentially the biggest of all. In July, China’s Vice-Admiral Shen Jinlong met his Russian counterparts in Murmansk, where they discussed “existing threats in the world’s oceans [and] possible practical forms of co-operation”, the Northern Fleet’s press release said.
Almost exactly a year ago China’s only icebreaker, the Snow Dragon, spent the northern summer deep in the western Arctic, on an 83-day mission that visited waters off Norway and Canada. It travelled far north of the Northern Sea Route ploughed by the Venta, in a part of the world some experts predict will be routinely navigable within a few decades.
When the Snow Dragon first sailed over the top of Russia from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 2012, expedition leader Huigen Yang told Reuters “to our astonishment … the most part of the Northern Sea Route is open”. Ever since, China’s interest in the region has intensified. It now has plans for a second, nuclear-powered icebreaker, and China is funding research on how submarines can function under the Arctic ice.
“The Arctic has always reflected the wider world,” says Rasmus Gjedsso Bertelsen, professor of northern studies at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromso.
“But the wider world before was Western-dominated.”
He warns against the trap of “presentism” – assuming that modern times are unique and there are no lessons in history. And he is wary of “Arctic exceptionalism”, the idea that somehow this region is a special zone of science, exploration and peace.
In fact the Arctic has been a commercial and military zone for centuries. Catholic Europe ate Arctic dry fish on Fridays, the Napoleonic wars played out in part here, and manoeuvres during the Crimean War were arguably why Russia sold Alaska to the US in 1867 rather than Britain/Canada, Bertelsen says.
Our view of a pristine, peaceful Arctic springs from recent history: the brief post-Cold War period.
“You had this omnipotent, unipolar America, a bankrupt Russia, and China biding its time,” he says. “We should not confuse Russian behaviour at that time with a reform of the Russian mind. Now, because of rising oil prices and the rule of Vladimir Putin, you have a Russia which behaves in a way much more to be expected from a great power.
“And great powers don’t behave very well – or rather they only behave as well as others force them to do.”
The seminar saw strong debate over how much Russia is seeking to rule the Arctic rather than share its stewardship. Some pointed to Russia’s friendly role in promoting coastguard and rescue cooperation, and in scientific fields. Others said the Arctic is the key to nuclear deterrence – the flight path for bombers and inter-continental ballistic missiles and home to key missile defence systems – and that issue will determine whether the region ends in “complete co-operation or going to hell in a handbasket”.
Security concerns often mirror economic concerns. And as climate change alters the physical landscape, the economic landscape of the Arctic is changing just as fast.
“Look carefully at the Yamal project,” Bertelsen says. It’s an extraordinary new LNG project on Russia’s Arctic coast – a $US27 billion ($37 billion) plant, to be serviced by 15 new ice-class tankers on order from Korea worth another $US5 billion, tapping an immense gas reserve the equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil. A lot of this is financed by Chinese money, as sanctions against Russia forced it to look east for cash.
“China and the other Asian countries are looking especially to the Russian Arctic as a source of energy,” Bertelsen says. “In the West we think of gas as a fossil fuel to be phased out. But air pollution in China is very serious and their big problem is coal. It’s obvious they have to do something about that, and replacing coal with gas is the quick fix.”
The Arctic is incredibly rich in fossil fuels: an area the size of Africa holds more than a fifth of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves. About 80 per cent is gas, and thanks to a quirk of geology most of the gas is above Russia.
This has already led to territorial disputes, as Russia tries to stake its claim to a continental shelf stretching almost to the pole. Both the US and China want to minimise Russia’s “exclusive” zone.
And there is a vicious circle here – the climate change making it easier to get the gas down to Asia will be accelerated by the carbon emitted by that gas.
One of the big concerns at the seminar was how climate change concerns are ignored or at least compartmentalised in the Arctic. Russia has been slow to acknowledge the scientific consensus, the US has performed a sudden U-turn, and China argues that it should not suffer for the ecological sins of the developed world.
“You’d think [the US and Russia] are members of the Flat Earth Society,” one attendee complained. “And in the worsening geopolitical climate it’s much more difficult to achieve cooperative efforts.”
One successful multilateral agreement in the Arctic has been on ‘black carbon’ – the pollution put out by shipping that stains the ice and accelerates climate change, among other ill effects.