Changing Geopolitics of the Arctic: Challenges for Governance
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Changing Geopolitics of the Arctic: Challenges for Governance

By Rashmi Ramesh
National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India

Changing Geopolitics of the Arctic: Challenges for Governance

The Arctic is at a crucial stage, in the midst of climate change and geopolitical developments. Politics and rivalry are not new to the region which was highly militarized during the Cold War. However, the nature of geopolitics is certainly different in the post-Cold War era, with Asian powers entering the realm. The Arctic is no more limited to North American-European tracts but has moved well beyond the Arctic Circle to include other players in the south. This has posed various challenges to the governance of the already complex region. In order to understand the nature and challenges of governance, it is important to define the Arctic and its expanse.

Defining the Arctic 

The primary factor of defining the Arctic is geography. The traditional notions of geography define it as an area above 66 ½° north latitude, essentially, the region above the Arctic Circle. It is further divided into High, Low and Sub Arctic. While the geographic Arctic can be defined in this manner, the changes in recent years go beyond the traditionalist definitions. 

First, the effects of climate change in the Arctic are much more severe than in other parts of the globe. Whether it is the loss of tundra biodiversity, melting of the sea ice and the Greenlandic ice sheet, polar amplification[1] or the wildfires in the Sub-Arctic. These changes, in turn, have an impact on the rest of the globe, experienced through increasing sea level, changes in precipitation patterns, particularly in the Indian sub-continent, and release of greenhouse gases like methane due to thawing of permafrost. On the contrary, the severity of changes in the region is also the result of carbon-intensive activities outside the Circle. There is a natural perception that the polar regions are paying a heavy price for the actions of the non-polar countries/entities.

Second, due to climate change, the Arctic is attracting other countries across Europe and Asia. There are many stakeholders- states, industries, non-governmental organizations, so on.

Therefore, the Arctic is defined not only by the Circle but also by the expanse of its influence as well as the non-Arctic stakeholders. The definition of the Arctic determines the nature of governance.

Geopolitical Aspects 

The Cold War rendered the Arctic as a highly militarized region. While the Soviet Union specialized in ice-class submarines and warships and established nuclear testing grounds, the US (and NATO) built military bases, had rigorous patrolling by Norway and Denmark. The Thule Airbase in Greenland is jointly maintained by Denmark, Canada, and the US. 

The Cold War tensions were diffused with Mikhail Gorbachev’s iconic speech in Murmansk, in 1987. Though cooperative measures pre-dated it, the call for cooperation in the North by Gorbachev culminated in the establishment of the Arctic Council. The Post-Cold War era in the Arctic opened the doors for increased cooperation and institutions. Climate change and the environment became a priority, and geopolitics took a sidetrack.

At present, climate change has become a major concern and non-Arctic countries are entering into the regional affairs on the pretext of being affected by the climate. Climate change has further led to uncovering of the resources (hydrocarbons and rare earth minerals), shipping routes, tourism, overlapping claims under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), minor territorial and maritime disputes. Such developments are leading to certain basic questions of governance- what, who and how to govern.

Challenges for governance 

Governance of the Arctic can be categorized as follows: 

1. Governance within the Arctic for the Arctic 

2. Governance within the Arctic with a wider scope 

3. Governance by international regimes for the Arctic

Governance according to the traditional definition of the Arctic would involve actors within the Circle or the geographic boundaries of the region. The six organizations of the indigenous communities, who are also the Permanent Participants of the Arctic Council, can be an example for the first category. The Saami Council, for instance, is a non-governmental organization, a collective of different Saami organizations across Norway, Russia, Sweden, and Finland. Such organizations/councils have a limited scope of governance, as they are limited to a sub-region within the Arctic and include only community members.

The second category implies that certain governance structures in the Arctic have a wider scope, including the actors who are not within the geographic boundaries of the region. Such institutions are established for governing the Arctic, but recognize the role of other non-Arctic entities/states. The Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council have closed membership, but have included non-Arctic stakeholders as Observers. 

This category is not only limited to formal institutions but can include treaties and agreements formulated along with non-Arctic players. The parties to the Central Arctic Ocean Agreement, 2018, included China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union, which are external actors in the Arctic. This is a classic example of the governance structure of the Arctic with a wider scope. 

The third category reflects the concept of “globalization of the Arctic.” Due to the impact of changes in the Arctic on the rest of the globe, international institutions and regimes are showing a keen interest in the governance of the Arctic. European Union, though not an Observer in the Arctic Council, plays an important role in the governance of the region through Finland and Sweden. The United Nations also discusses and proposes certain policies for Arctic climate governance. 

The Arctic is an ocean, therefore, the principles of the UNCLOS is automatically applicable. The UNCLOS and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) are the major institutions in assigning maritime boundariesExclusive economic zones and the extent of the continental shelf. According to Simon Dalby (2014), climate change has the capability to alter the geography of a region or a country. The sea ice is melting, and new islands/islets are being uncovered. This increases the complexities of governance and the role of UNCLOS. 

There are some challenges with the governance of the Arctic- one, the role of external players and the skepticism attached to them. China, in particular, is facing some amount of skepticism from the US and mainland Denmark, due to its Polar Silk Road and increasing strategic presence in Greenland, Iceland, and Russia. Two, the changing nature of the region itself is a challenge. Discovery of new resources, increasing shipping, changing flora and fauna, changes in the weather conditions, altering lifestyle of the indigenous communities, communication, and infrastructural needs, so on, are keeping the policymakers on toes. Three, there are multiple institutions in the Arctic, focusing on different aspects. It is important that there is continuity, cohesiveness in the working of these institutions. 

About the Author:

Rashmi Ramesh (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-1597-6375) is a Ph.D. scholar with the Science Diplomacy Programme, School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, INDIA.


[1] The polar regions experience more warming and changes in the climatic conditions than the rest of the globe.

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.