A View From Afar: Australia and the Arctic
The Arctic is once more in geopolitical free fall. Australia should construct an approach to its Arctic interests informed by our brushes with great power politics in the Indo-Pacific.
2022’s iteration of Russian aggression towards Ukraine saw the pause of the Arctic’s sole governance forum – the Arctic Council. A dire diplomatic situation is brewing in the Arctic, and the Council could have protected from spiraling Russia-West tensions. Russia holds the largest (over 50 percent) legitimate territorial stake in the Arctic region, which means dialogue for any Arctic challenge, necessitates engagement with Moscow. Russia will also likely take the “freeze” in dialogue collaboration in the Arctic as an opportunity to usher in new-Arctic actors.
But many Arctic think tank “experts” either view dialogue as appeasement or, perplexingly, believe transnational security challenges (e.g., climate change and environmental disasters) can be dealt with neatly within sovereign Arctic boundaries. Others appear unconvinced of the geostrategic shifts the Arctic would experience via the enhanced activity of states like India, China, UAE, and select ASEAN nations. Of course, Delhi and Beijing don’t need a sovereign claim to “insert” themselves into the region. But the robustness of international law in the Arctic is perhaps a piece for another time.
The Arctic is not immune from geopolitics, and actually, the region went “global” quite some time ago. Indeed, Australia has critical interests in the Arctic “great game.” Sitting at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, a zone that extends to the Arctic via the North Pacific, Australia is already impacted by geopolitical shifts and security threats originating in the High North. In the eyes of international treaties, Australia already has an Arctic stake. Party to the Svalbard Treaty, Australian nationals have the right to access economic gains, as well as rights to residence and access to the Svalbard Archipelago. Australian firms mining critical minerals are also well-established throughout the Arctic region.
Much of Australia’s network, the “hub and spoke” web of partners and allies, hold interests in the Arctic. Of the eight Arctic-rim states (nations with territory above the Arctic Circle), Australia holds strong diplomatic ties with seven – the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Further Arctic-rim diplomatic linkages include the Five Eyes intelligence network, which is represented by the US and Canada. The remaining network members are also engaged Arctic states – both Japan and the UK are Observers of the Arctic Council. Australia also works closely with the EU and NATO – two key institutions with rising Arctic interest (and footprints).
Plenty of hot air has been spent on the spillover potential for military conflict in the Arctic. Arguably, even Russia’s military footprint in the Russian Arctic zone is but a shadow of its Cold War-era footprint. Of course, any discussion of Arctic military capability appears largely devoid of consideration around intent. Simplistic assessments of Russian foreign policy existing as a “set and forget” system – applicable to every corner of the globe – tend to drown out any nuanced understanding of Kremlin strategy. If the Russian Arctic zone is the future economic lifeline for Moscow, it makes sense to secure it and protect it militarily. But surely it follows, Russia’s priority is low tension in the Arctic to attract foreign investment and secure a long-term customer base. Again, perhaps a debate for another piece.
If the Arctic is essentially a “seam” of the Indo-Pacific, then Australia is an Arctic-stakeholder lying in wait. Not only do security challenges originate in the Arctic that shape the Indo-Pacific but shifts in the Indo-Pacific feedback to shape the Arctic. Environmental challenges, rising sea levels, and threats to crop harvests are just a few of the ecological shifts driving Indo-Pacific states like India and China to the Arctic. The scientific data and research opportunities to track and understand changing global climate in the Arctic is fast becoming a source of security interest for many coastal states in Asia. Of course, economic allures in the Arctic, namely the Russian Arctic zone’s hydrocarbon opportunities, drive Indo-Pacific states to cooperate with Moscow. For many states it is about economics, not ethics.
As the line between Arctic-insider and Arctic-outsider continues to recede, there are two central themes of interest which shape the Arctic view from Australia. First, the Arctic-rim states are consumed by an increasingly outdated concept of proximity. It is also weaponised to a point. For example, liberal-democratic Arctic-rim states have clear issues with China’s self-identification as a “near-Arctic” stakeholder. Yet, India, which also penned an Arctic Strategy and increasingly works to legitimise and insert itself into the Arctic region, does not attract a similar emotive response. India’s “third pole” strategic narrative through which its stake in the Himalayas is cultivated and attached to its polar identity in a push for Arctic relevance and legitimacy. The conception of proximity as the be all and end all of legitimacy is dating fast. Not least, we are yet to see the implications of climate change on seabeds and exclusive economic zones. Of course, the rigid application of international law must consider the ways in which states will continue to work the system and interpret international agreements.
The second theme worth considering is the varied way in which Arctic “threats” are defined and conceptualised. The idea that Russia or China will invade the US via the Arctic is abstract to the point of potentially requiring medical intervention. The conception that Beijing will send the PLA Navy to secure access to and exploitation of the slither of the Arctic Ocean which is High Seas is somewhat missing the point. Rather, we should expect the increased masking of assertive policies by Beijing via research and scientific endeavours. This continued weaponisation of scientific research as well as expanding dual-use military-civilian capabilities will reshape threat perceptions in the Arctic.
A strong Russia in the Arctic or a viable and booming Russian Arctic zone filled with energy projects is a considerable threat for other Arctic-rim states. However, I caution the push to devastate or undermine Russia’s ventures in the Russian Arctic. While the haemorrhage of Western partners, investment, and technology is desirable for the West in the short term, this situation is dire news in the long-term. Beijing further legitimately intrenches itself in projects in the Russian Arctic zone which will likely attract military or security protectionist politics in the long term. This would usher in increased PLA Navy presence in the Arctic, not least potentially congesting the Bering Strait. Presence is power. Again, lessons from Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific, regional experiences of China’s debt-trap diplomacy, and security force enhancements should be grasped now for the Arctic. Australia is well versed in the navigating the complexities of “little blue men,” has evident Arctic interests, and plenty to offer our partners in the region. The Arctic has gone global, and it is time for the traditional Arctic security debate to catch up.
Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is Head of Navy Research at the Sea Power Centre. She is a nonresident fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. All views are her own. @BuchananLiz
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