Arctic Futures ReOrient

In Nature Reports Climate Change, Keith Kloor reviews Cleo Paskal‘s new book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.  He writes:


Paskal convincingly argues that short-sighted domestic and foreign policies are already eroding “the West’s position in the global balance of power”. Exhibit A is the Arctic, where the US and EU are pushing for ‘global governance’ of the still-frozen Northwest Passage, a route expected to become a prized shipping channel to Asia and Europe with continued warming.
As melting Arctic sea ice opens a shipping channel through the Northwest Passage, China and Russia could forge economic ties to Canada and win major gains in trade.
Canada currently claims the Northwest Passage as part of its territorial waters, but this assertion is being contested by the US and European Union, which want it recognized as an international strait so that they can have unfettered access for their own commercial interests, such as oil and gas exploration. This standoff, Paskal suggests, could prod Canada to explore a strategic relationship with Russia, which has its own designs on the Arctic. Meanwhile, China is knocking at Canada’s door, eager to purchase a slice of the country’s abundant natural resources. In a ‘stateless’ Northwest Passage, Russia and China could end up being the big players, especially if they forge stronger economic ties to Canada. This potential development, Paskal argues, poses a long-term security risk to the EU and US.

To understand why the Northwest Passage looms large in global geopolitics, one need only look to China, which has built up a trading and shipping network through state-controlled companies that now manage such chokepoints as the Panama Canal. As Paskal explains, these chokepoints, where a wide flow of traffic is forced through a narrow alley, “are the sorts of things empires go to war over”. The Strait of Hormuz, which leads to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, is a natural chokepoint. Others, such as the Panama Canal, are man-made. “The melting Arctic sea ice creates new chokepoints of global strategic importance,” asserts Paskal, cautioning those who minimize the Northwest Passage as a Canadian issue, “It is about as much of a Canadian issue as the Suez Canal is simply an Egyptian issue.”

Chinese chess

The melding of realpolitik and international relations with climate change is what makes Global Warring deserving of attention. Paskal spends much of the book walking the reader through the projected impacts of climate change — but in the context of countries manoeuvring for advantage in a world where imminent and drastic environmental change is taken for granted.

At the same time the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that the prospect of a navigable Arctic has lead the Chinese government to fund more polar research.  The Financial Times writes in Exploring the openings created by Arctic melting.

“Because China’s economy is reliant on foreign trade, there are substantial commercial implications if shipping routes are shortened during the summer months each year,” the report said. It added that taking the northern route through an ice-free Arctic could shorten the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg by 6,400km compared with sailing through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. In addition, piracy-induced high insurance costs could be avoided.

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