Posts Tagged ‘Arctic Circle’

This is an essay I submitted for my 300-level (final year of undergraduate study in NZ) geopolitics paper.  It discusses the effect that Arctic sea ice reduction is having on geopolitical action regarding the Northern sea routes, and how the routes came to be viewed as they are today in terms of the purpose of space.  I received A- for this assignment.  Feedback stated that I could have framed the discussion in terms of resource, commerce and military imaginaries for a better structure; and that I should have explored more fully the motivations behind the US’ opposition to Canada’s sovereign claim over the Northwest Passage.  I  also apologise for my lengthy sentences and somewhat epic style – I think it comes from reading LOTR too many times.  Please feel free to leave any feedback.

Oh and if you are a student: please don’t steal my work, you might get kicked out of school. 🙂



The Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route: Geopolitical Imaginations and Shipping Viability

The Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are both subject to the influence of geopolitical imaginaries of prominent actors.  These imaginaries, based in classical geopolitics and the maritime discourses of industrial capitalism, have scripted action taken by both states and private organisations in the Arctic sea routes.  Two distinct, though related, categories of approach to these routes can be identified; littoral states asserting sovereignty due to security concerns, in which the routes share many characteristics; and economic potential, in which there are some similarities between approaches taken to each route by both states and industry, but overall, the two are more dissimilar.  Implications of these geopolitical approaches are thus far fairly minor, but may become more serious when ice-free passage can be guaranteed consistently.

The NWP and NSR, considering their common geographical characteristic of linking major seas via shorter routes than currently established trade seaways, have been the subject of geopolitical discourse since before the Modern Era.  The emergence of merchant capitalism out of Italian city-states in the fifteenth century spawned the geopolitical consideration of trade routes over the sea, defined principally by the Roman imperium ethos of authority.  The Dutch, who enjoyed naval hegemony and the first stock-based economy in the seventeenth century, chartered the Dutch East India Company to establish an almost global shipping network.  Aside from this space-based imaginary, by which oceans were viewed simply as voids for goods to be transported over in the most profitable way possible, expansionist maritime policies were employed by naval powers such as Britain, moving into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These were in line with the contemporary classical trend of geopolitical thought made popular by theorists such as Mackinder, in which security was the paramount consideration.

Following Renaissance advancements in cartography, various Northern European states as well as Britain attempted to penetrate the Arctic in the search for routes to East Asia.  Following (and preceding) several failed expeditions, the NWP was eventually explored more comprehensively by John Davis of Britain in 1858, and the NSR completely traversed by Nordenskiӧld in 1878.  A lack of icebreaking and meteorological technology at this point rendered the routes unusable for commercial purposes; while icebreakers entered the routes as early as the mid-twentieth century, the commercial viability of the Arctic routes is only now becoming apparent with the decline in Arctic sea ice.  While estimates are contradictory as to how soon industrial shipping may become prolific through the NWP and NSR, conflicts over sovereignty regarding the passages are receiving more academic attention.  As a separate but related issue, there is also concern in the private sector around whether or not the two passages are yet, or in fact will ever be, economically viable transport options.

Sovereignty in both the NWP and NSR is claimed by littoral states; the former by Canada, and the latter by Russia.  As regards both claims, the primary opposition comes from the United States.  While Canada maintains that the waters of the Northwest Passage are internal waters, based on the provision in Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the rendering of straight ‘baselines’ under particular circumstances, the United States regards this area as international waters.  The criteria for the allowance of straight baselines include geographical requirements in Article 7(3) – “In localities where the coastline is deeply indented and cut into, or if there is a fringe of islands along the coast in its immediate vicinity” (United Nations, 1982) – but also espouse historical and functional use as factors which would support a case for straight baselines.  Steinberg (2014) cites the arguments of Pharand (2007) and Byers and Lalonde (2009) that the geographical criteria are met in the case of Canada, but acknowledges their difference in opinion regarding historic and functional use.  Steinberg concurs with Pharand that Canada’s case is weak on this front, particularly as UNCLOS makes a point of equating ice with water, and thus asserts that ice cannot be subject to territorial claims.  The United States asserts that the NWP waters are an international strait.  This definition suits the U.S. because the regime of innocent passage that applies to territorial waters according to UNCLOS gives way to “transit passage” in international waters (Steinberg 2014).  Under this regime, there is no requirement for military ships to make themselves known or to apply for any kind of permit to use the passage.

As Lassere (2010) notes, there is similarity between this conflict and that concerning the NSR between the U.S. and Russia, and in both conflicts the European Union supports the U.S., while Canada and Russia recognise each other’s claims as legitimate.  Here the influence of colonial era geopolitical imaginaries is clear.  States (or multilateral unions thereof) that stand to establish naval hegemony will, according to the classical geopolitical ethos of Mackinder and contemporaries, fear the growth of a polarised sector, a ‘them’ to challenge the ‘us’.  This is enacted through scripts whereby sovereignty of any singular states over naval routes is challenged vigorously, in order to keep transit networks as open as possible.

The NSR has endured the same mythological status as a possible strategic game-changer.  In a comparative absence of multilateral agreements to the NWP, sovereignty over the NSR is generally discussed more in terms of precedence, in particular the Corfu Channel Case of 1949, and that decision’s ratification in the International Law Commission’s 1950s approach to international straits in territorial zones.  In these judgments it was considered that functional use of the waterway for international shipping was necessary for definition as an international strait, and it can be argued that this criterion is not yet met in the case of either the NWP or the NSR.  While Russian state-owned enterprises are very active along the Siberian Coast, The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) considers that regular international transit shipping may not occur in the NSR until 2025 (Ho 2010).  Ho asserts that no non-Russian ships had even followed the Siberian Coast route through the NSR prior to 2002.  Russia has asserted sovereignty over the NSR with perhaps more recognition than Canada has over the NWP, due principally to its capabilities for functional use in the area.  Parallels can also be drawn between Canada and Russia’s issuing of permits as a means of seeking sovereign recognition – for shipping transit in the NWP, and for icebreaker accompaniment in the NSR – and the British issuance of whaling licenses in the Antarctic in 1908 as described by Dodds (2008), although this was successfully legitimised.

Overall, it can be said that the conflict over sovereignty in both the NWP and NSR is based on the same security-based geopolitical imaginaries; both Canada and Russia are concerned with protecting homeland security by asserting control over these passages, and the U.S. in particular fears having its security and economic hegemony compromised by regulation of transit routes.  The passages in this context are imagined as military space.  The implications of the scripts resulting from these imaginaries are currently minor; however, this is only because there is no imminent risk of a naval war that the United States, Canada or Russia might become involved in.  If these circumstances changed for the worse – and the current situation in Crimea may inflame tensions – simple disagreement over the terms of multilateral conventions could evolve into assertions of military force, particularly considering the vulnerability of both the United States and Russia to one another through the Arctic passages.

While it is related to the security-based imaginary of the NWP and NSR, an economic imaginary is also significant.  In terms of this imaginary, there are more differences between the two passages than there are similarities.  The practical challenges of Arctic shipping are reasonably prohibitive.  This is more true concerning the NWP for one salient reason; a lack of infrastructure and icebreaking support (Lasserre and Pelletier 2011).  Canada has little to invest in resource extraction compared to Russia, which has already built a strong state energy industry on which the European Union relies.  While risks posed by icebergs and surface freezing apply in the NSR as they do in the NWP, any ship running into problems in ‘Russian’ waters can expect aid from their escort, and a safe berth nearby at one of the Siberian Coast ports.  This factor, along with Russia’s already extensive extraction operations in the NSR, has contributed to the much advanced development of geopolitical imaginaries of the NSR as a resource-rich natural environment to be exploited, as compared to the NWP.  Russia’s work in encouraging this imaginary will have heavy implications if shipping becomes established through the NSR.

Ho and Lasserre and Pelletier are in agreement that for the immediate future, Arctic shipping is not viable.  Lasserre and Pelletier’s study found that most companies out of 98 surveyed were not particularly interested in expanding operations into the Arctic on a large scale.  Difficulties for private corporations are related mainly to a very large upfront investment with a dubious likelihood of return.  Reasons cited include the ice-strengthened ships necessary for insurance requirements in Arctic waters; these are inefficient in warmer waters because they are not as hydrodynamic as regular shipping vessels and therefore have a higher cost of fuel per kilometre.  Aside from this, insurance premiums in general for Arctic operations are enormous.  Added to this is the unreliability of ice cover from year to year, despite established warming.  Far more companies involved in destination/bulk shipping indicated interest in expanding Arctic operations, compared to container shipping companies.  Lasserre and Pelletier’s explanation for this is based in the essential nature of timing and schedules in the container shipping industry, which operates on a roll-on, roll-off premise.  Reliability of transit routes is of the utmost importance; this is in contrast to local destinational contracts for the bulk industry.  In general, the study concludes – like Ho’s analysis – that the shipping industry will not be thoroughly interested in operations in the NWP and NSR until infrastructure and shipping technology becomes accessible enough to negate the extra costs of investing in this market.  This will likely occur more quickly in the NSR due to Russian investment and promotion.  The NWP, on the other hand, will probably not become a viable route until ice-free Summers can be guaranteed.  Discrepancy between the routes illustrates the influence that geopolitical imaginaries fostered by particular states can have on economic action.

Implications of a shift in established maritime trade routes could be very serious for smaller economies such as New Zealand, as secondary routes are more expensive to ship along, and consumers along these routes must pay inflated prices for goods.  Environmental implications would not simply be limited to oil spills, but would include the impact of construction on the purity of Arctic ice and water, which may have unpredictable effects on native species and indigenous people.  And, of course, relating to the aforementioned security-based imaginary, economic expansion into the Arctic could have military consequences as multiple nations seek sovereignty over profitable areas.

It is clear that geopolitical imaginaries have scripted behaviour of both states and private organisations in regard to both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route.  These two routes share many aspects of a security-based, classical geopolitical imaginary, being important transit routes that serve as a dual vulnerability between Russia and the United States. The U.S. refutes these claims in its historical ambition for global military hegemony.  Economically, the passages exhibit more difference, with much greater private interest in the NSR as opposed to the NWP; this can be credited to the fostering of a resource-based imaginary by Russia.  Serious implications of these imaginaries have not been seen yet, due to the persisting unreliability and danger of both routes.  However, AMSA’s prediction of 2025 may be the year that military and economic concerns become more immediate.




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