Among the many international institutions of this world lies one that is at least somewhat obscure given the potential importance of its geographic span. The Arctic Council is made up of eight nations who control land around the Arctic Ocean as well as observers who have business interests in that region . The eight nations who participate as voting members of the council are: the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. Several other nations participate as non-voting observers: China, India, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan). As I have my own occasinally odd interests in the geopolitics of the Arctic region , I thought it would be appropriate to comment on the geopolitical shifts that are occurring as a result of the thinning of the Arctic ice cap, changes that are potentially good ones for many nations.
For our purposes, an examination of the trade potential of the Arctic Ocean must include both the Northeast and the Northwest passage. The Northeast passage is that over the northern border of Siberia and the Nordic nations. The Northwest passage passes through Greenland and over the northern territories of Canada and the United States. For the moment, neither of these trade routes has proven to be a particularly dominant one in a world where long-distance trade is of the utmost importance. Nevertheless, as both of these routes have potential, those nations (the United States, Canada, and Russia in particular, as well as the Nordic countries of Europe and their colonial possessions like Svalbard and Greenalnd) have the potential to gain greatly from increased access to these routes, as well as increased vulnerability in a front that has largely been ignored to date.
Aside from the fact that there is still a lot of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean that threatens shipping, there are at least a few reasons why these routes have not yet been developed to their potential. Among the chief reasons is the thorny problem of logistics and infrastructure. By and large, the Arctic regions of all of the nations of the Arctic Council are very undeveloped. Port facilities are limited in the entire region, and transportation infrastructure has not yet linked such small cities as exist in those parts of the world with larger cities closer to the core regions of any of the Arctic powers. In order for the shorter distances possible for trade over the Arctic Ocean (about 20% shorter than existing trade routes, without having to go through narrow and vulnerable points like the Suez Canal or the Red Sea or the Straits of Malacca, where piracy and political issues have been important) to be taken advantage of, there will need to be some infrastructure investments in places like Alaska, the Northwest Territories, Greenland, Lappland, Svalbard, and Siberia, areas that are not particularly known for having world-class naval infrastructure.
It is unsurprising in this context that China is seeking to leverage better relationships with Greenland and Iceland, two nations that can provide a fair amount of access over the Baltic areas and areas that have so far been estranged from the local power bases. Iceland, for example, has kept its distance from the European Union and their penchant for bailing out defunct banks , while Greenland has been seeking to gain greater freedom from its Danish colonial masters, even as they wrestle with their current subsidized prosperity and the potential for massive oil wealth and a strong geopolitical position in the Arctic. It is equally unsurprising that the indiginous peoples of the areas of Greenland and Ninavut, areas that would presumably need development in order for the progress of trans-arctic trade, should also be interested in the plans of the nations who rule over their territories. After all, there is a great deal of potential money to be made in this often forgotten area of the world, and where money can be made in this world, politics will never be absent.
For the moment, discussion hinges on agreements on boundary disputes, concerns over logistics and port infrastructure (as well as the infrastructure connecting those ports with the rest of the country), as well as concerns over environmental matters of common interest. The fact that eight nations (with a handful of observers) are coming to terms on matters of marine accidents and search and rescue suggests that they are realizing the potential benefits of greater cooperation in their area of common interest. While Antarctica has been set aside, thus far, as a global commons, the Arctic Ocean is being carved up into spheres of influence by those powers that control its littoral, the difference being that at some point there at least may be a greater effort in development of the region, as soon as the actual economic benefit would justify such an expense in an area where development has been nearly entirely lacking and very remote. Even though there are many areas of the world that are vastly better known than the Arctic, our northern front is an area that deserves at least occasional interest and attention given the developments going on there.