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June 24 Webinar: Geopolitical rivalry and the Arctic

24 June 2020

The EU-Asia Center invited Michael Mann, (EU ambassador for the Arctic, Counsellor Shang Zhen (Legal Advisor, Mission of China to the EU) and Liselotte Orgaard (Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute) to a webinar discussion on the Arctic geopolitics. The event was moderated by Fraser Cameron (Director, EU-Asia Centre). The panelists and the numerous audience questions focused on future of shipping, environmental concerns and the current status of multilateralism and peaceful cooperation in the region.

Amb Mann and Ms Orgaard predicted that commercial routes opening through the Arctic could still be some time away. Currently, the routes remain too unpredictable for commercial operators working as part of ‘just in time’ supply chains. In addition, the lack of sufficient search and rescue capacity along the routes compounded the risks. Russian plans of requiring users to pay for the passage, opposed by the US, could also impact the start of commercial shipping. Counselor Shang highlighted that the Chinese interest as a ‘near Arctic State’ were also strongly tied to improving the connectivity between Asia and Europe through Arctic, an issue in which it China has been exchanging its views also with other interested Asian countries, such as South Korea.

The panelists agreed that the environmental concerns are a priority to most of Artic and ‘near-Arctic’ states and actors. The climate change could accelerate the opening of the Arctic faster than expected, but bring with it inevitable damage to Arctic environment and infrastructure built on the quickly thawing permafrost. The successful negotiation of shared rules for environmentally sustainable and responsible shipping in the vulnerable Artic are in all actors interest.

Ms Orgaard posited that the widely shared environmental concerns in Arctic could well translate to successful cooperation on sustainable shipping standards in Arctic, where the process had stalled elsewhere. Meanwhile, exploitation of oil and gas resources in Artic were expected to be among the most contentious issues due to the potential for heavy pollution and the substantial resistance of indigenous peoples in the region.

Amb Mann emphasized the EU commitment to multilateralism and peaceful cooperation in the Arctic. The Arctic Council, the Northern Dimension and Barents Euro-Arctic have proven their worth as forums of multilateral cooperation with real work being done in each in there area of specialization. He emphasized that the EU work complements the strategies of individual EU Member States and saw no contradiction in the multiple approaches. Counselor Shang highlighted the Chinese support for multilateralism and working in the frameworks of international institutions and law, such as UNCLOS, to address challenges in the Arctic. The EU and China as ‘near Artic’ stakeholders could help Arctic states with more investment and resources, especially for sustainable development and combating climate change. Ms Orgaard noted that the increasing Chinese involvement as well as Russian resource build up had had positive impact of ramping US activity in the region, such as opening of a consulate and investment in Greenland.

The geopolitical rivalry and tensions escalating into military confrontation, despite the countries such as US and Russia building up their capacities in the region, was deemed unlikely. Peaceful cooperation to resolve issues was foreseen as the likely course for the future of the Arctic, even if the geopolitical tensions continue to rise.