EU tipped for confrontation with China, Russia and US over Arctic dominance

China 'making Arctic states nervous' over relations says expert

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Brussels wants to boost its ties with the Arctic to make sure it has access to critical rare elements in the region, and also to protect the environment by ending oil and gas explorations. The Arctic has been a point of much contention in recent years. This is especially true as the vast land of ice contains materials that will be vital to energy and power in the future.

Elements like neodymium, praseodymium, terbium and dysprosium are all key to the world’s electric vehicle and renewable energy revolutions, underpinning technology and wind turbines too.

The EU is more than aware of this, setting out its plans for the region last week in its Arctic Policy document, noting that: “The Arctic region is of key strategic importance for the European Union, in view of climate change, raw materials as well as geostrategic influence.”

It is not alone in this belief, with world powers like China, Russia and the US having already asserted their claim to the polar region.

Earlier this year, three Russian submarines simultaneously broke through ice near the North Pole — each boat could carry 16 ballistic missiles, and each missile could field multiple nuclear warheads.

The submarines were joined by two MiG-31 aircraft and a number of ground troops participating in Umka-2021, a Russian military exercise.

It highlighted increased Russian military activity in the Arctic, with the country’s attention focused on the region’s abundance of oil and gas.

This fact makes it a strategic area, not only for the Russian economy, but also the commercial interests of key Kremlin power brokers who are close associates and members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

In April, satellite images showed the extent to which Russia had militarised the Arctic, with evidence for it having advanced the development of its “super-weapon”, the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo.

Investing a sum believed to be somewhere around £200billion last year in Arctic oil and gas exploration, Russia is unlikely to take heed of the EU’s policy for “coal and gas to stay in the ground”.

Brussels also has China to deal with.

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Xi Jinping partnered up with Russia in 2017 and proposed opening a new ‘Polar Silk Road’ as climate change leaves formerly frozen channels open for longer, allowing greater and more efficient trade between Asia, Europe and North America.

Increasingly interested in the Arctic, China released its first white paper in 2018, to “jointly understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, and advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.”

While many countries claim to be Arctic stakeholders due to vested interests, China went one step further after it claimed it was a “near-Arctic state” shortly after the white paper.

This sparked controversy, with many fearing that China was attempting to push itself on to the Arctic.

Analysts say China’s ambitions are purely economic: according to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) 2017 statistical review, about 88 percent of global merchandise trade occurs between Asia, Europe and North America — some of which could conceivably pass through the Arctic Ocean in the future.


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Zhang Zhixing, a senior East Asia analyst for geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, told CNBC: “The white paper is an official statement to ensure China has a foothold in the Arctic and the activities that are ongoing.

“China wants to be included in economic benefits here, that is the reason for their involvement even if they do not possess legitimate geographical reasons or logic to be considered a member of the region.”

Following the publication of the EU’s Arctic Policy, Brussels top brass assured that they did not want to see any flash points in the Arctic between itself and China, Russia and the US.

Michael Mann, EU’s Special Envoy for Arctic Matters, said he doesn’t necessarily see a danger of importing geopolitical tensions alongside the existing battle between China, Russia and the US.

He told Euractiv: “There is a lot of geopolitical and military positioning going on globally, and what happens in the Arctic is perhaps, to a certain extent, a reflection of that.

“But it doesn’t mean that tension is being imported, and we don’t see a danger of imminent security issues.

“There is mutual suspicion, but we haven’t seen any flash points, and we don’t want to see any flash points in the Arctic.”

However, the EU’s move to secure influence suggests it is more than aware of the dangers posed by China and Russia.

An ally of the bloc, the US has been more vocal in its disapproval of Russia and China’s dealings in the Arctic.

In recent years, Russia’s military build up has been matched by NATO and US troops equipment movements.

American B-1 Lancer bombers stationed in Norway’s Ørland air base earlier this year completed missions in the eastern Barents Sea.

In April, Secretary of State Anthony Blinked stated that Russia is trying “to exert control over new spaces. It is modernizing its bases in the Arctic and building new ones.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying: “We hear whining about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic. But everyone knows that it’s our territory, our land.”

The EU, then, has a job on its hands as the major powers vie for control, and Russia’s recent response to the bloc’s Arctic Policy may be a sign of things to come.

When asked by CNBC about the policy proposals, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said they were politically motivated and nonsensical, as opposed to environmentally driven as they have been framed.

He said: “I was a bit surprised when I heard about this yesterday. Why the Arctic, why not the Equator? One could come up with a number of places in the world where oil and gas production must be banned.

“This proposal has no other motivation than political.

“What do these statements tell us ‒ that we need to stop extracting the entire gas produced at the moment? I think that the authors of these proposals have very little understanding of the real state of affairs.”

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