Submarine USS Annapolis rests on the Arctic Ocean after breaking through three feet of ice during Ice Exercise 2009 March 21, 2009 | Tiffini M. Jones/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
The European Union’s new head of Arctic policy has watched Russia build up its military presence and China plant its economic ambitions in Arctic states. While others see the countries’ growing influence as a new frontier for international conflict, Michael Mann says climate change is still the biggest threat to the high north.
“Climate change is a real thing that is happening that brings with it certain threats,” Mann, the former EU ambassador to Iceland, said in an interview Monday. “I would like to sort of play down the idea of tension building up. It has been a very successful period for cooperation in the Arctic.”
The ambassador-at-large for the Arctic notes that countries worldwide view the region as an arena for oil and gas development, rare earth mineral extraction and faster transportation due to shipping lanes created by the rapidly accelerating Arctic ice melt. Many countries fear that nations will butt heads in bids to exploit these types of natural resource development.
“Where the Arctic was [historically] reserved for the Arctic states, now it’s very much seen as an international area of interest, and I don’t see that as being a problem as long as it’s well-handled,” said Mann, who took on his current role on April 1.
A senior State Department official in a briefing late last month characterized this era as the “the return of geopolitics” in the Arctic, and warned “we can expect … the rapidly changing Arctic system to create greater incentives for the Kremlin and the [People’s Republic of China] to pursue agendas that clash with the interests of the United States and our allies and partners.”
Russia and the EU have their differences, which is “clear” to Mann, though it’s historically been a place where the two entities have cooperated, he said. “I think one should avoid looking for flare-ups and tension where they don’t exist. That’s not to say that there won’t be in the future, but at the moment, things are running smoothly in my opinion.”
The EU’s Arctic chief cited the Northern Dimension policy, a joint framework between EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland that promotes cooperation, economic competitiveness and sustainable development in Northern Europe as an example. Also, a new international fisheries agreement, ratified by Norway on Sunday, is an “absolutely amazing achievement” that’s a “sign that people are able to agree on things,” he said.
Mann noted that Russia and the EU are both part of the Barents-Euro Arctic Council, a forum to discuss issues in the Barents region — the stretch of land that runs along the Barents Sea.
Many non-Arctic countries in the EU, and elsewhere, are now shifting to design their own Arctic strategies, something he said is a welcome move. Arctic policy has normally been left solely to the Arctic nations to hash out.
“New players are playing a very serious role in the Arctic now, well at least China. That wasn’t the case perhaps four years ago,” Mann explained. The concern about new Arctic activities “depends on the country,” but he did not point out a specific area of unrest.
U.S. and British warships sailed to the Barents Sea this month for the first time since the 1980s, sparking buzz about what the operations meant in a militarized Arctic. However, a Navy spokesperson said in a statement the operations were routine and are “the latest in a series of ships operating in the Arctic Circle in recent years.”
Mann stressed that “it’s worth underlining that the Arctic has been, and currently is, a place of peaceful cooperation … [which] has been rather good. One of the EU’s main goals in Arctic policy is to promote multilateral cooperation and keeping it an area of peace.”
New commercial opportunities that arise alongside the Arctic’s sea ice melting is a main driver of growing interest in the region, but the northern sea lanes and how much new traffic there is increasing are “being slightly overplayed,” he said.
The apparent rise in tensions has led international officials to call for a body or forum for nations to discuss security issues, which Mann agrees may not be a bad idea.
The Arctic Council, composed of the eight Arctic states, is a forum for discussion on cooperation in the Arctic, though it’s not required to discuss security matters and instead focuses on work in environmental and sustainable development, and support for indigenous communities.
“Any forum that comes together where dialogue is possible, is going to be a good thing. I can’t tell you now what form that should be,” he said.