ANALYSIS – Great power rivalry heating up in Arctic circle

*The author is head of the Department of Economics at the Turkish-German University, works in the fields of international economics, gravity model, empirical international trade, econometric models, empirical macroeconomics, artificial neural networks and fuzzy approaches.


Arctic region, known as “The World’s North Pole,” comes from the Greek word arktikos, “near the Bear.” The term “bear” here refers to the Ursa Major Constellation. Anti-Arctic (Antarctic) is the continent that includes the South Pole. Located 700 kilometers from the nearest landmass, the Arctic Point is a floating structure and shifts. The South Pole point in Antarctica, which is a continent, is 1,300 kilometers away from the nearest sea. The position of the South Pole, which can move up to 10 meters per year, is recalculated on Jan. 1 annually.

The North Pole and the Arctic Ocean it is in do not belong to any country. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that covers an additional 200 nautical miles from the countries’ territorial seas with a coast to the ocean. However, countries with coasts to the ocean such as Norway, Russia, Canada and Denmark have launched many projects on some parts of the Arctic seabed in order to explore sources close to them and to obtain energy from sources such as wind and water provided by the ocean.

Why do poles matter?

Although poles and the melting of the glaciers are directly associated with climate change at first glance, the importance of the poles for the states of the world is not limited to climate change. According to Burcu Ozsoy, director of TUBITAK Marmara Research Center Polar Research Institute, Antarctica, which allows information about the past of the world, is the black box of our planet. Samples taken from glaciers will enable us to reach much unknown information about the world, and to obtain information about geological and atmospheric structures. In addition to allowing climatic studies, the poles, whose value is understood more and more both economically and scientifically, are places that provide information about the past of the world and shed light on its future.

In addition to the Arctic, the North Pole, the natural resources of the South Pole, Antarctica also whet the appetite of many countries. Antarctica is known as the world’s largest source of freshwater. Declared as the “Continent for Science and Peace,” this region functions as a natural laboratory for climate research, geophysics, biology, space sciences and other branches of science. According to the Antarctic Treaty System signed by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US in 1959 and entered into force in 1961, Antarctica will be used for international scientific studies and environmental protection. According to the Madrid Protocol signed in 1991, mining is prohibited in Antarctica, except for scientific research. Turkey, which signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1995, became a party to this treaty in 1996.

Antarctica, where 90% of the world’s glaciers and 70% of freshwater are located, is home to strong winds and is known as the continent that provides the world’s climate and carbon dioxide balance. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), attended by 75 scientists from 22 countries in 2014, determined the priority order of scientific studies to be carried out in the continent for 20 years. Accordingly, the global impact of the Antarctic atmosphere and the South Sea, understanding why, how and where the ice masses are decreasing, Antarctic history, space and universe research and reducing the adverse effects of human beings in the region are among these priority areas.

Economic value of poles

The economic value of the poles is increasing day by day due to the increase in global temperature and the melting of glaciers. As the glaciers melt, access to and transportation to the mines and minerals hidden in the region becomes easier. As the glaciers melt, the area is expected to be used as a trade route and significantly shorten traditional trade routes. For this reason, countries within the Arctic Circle and China have been undertaking more projects in the region in recent years.

The North Pole Arctic is also rich in oil and natural gas, the world’s non-renewable resources. The US Geological Survey estimates that there are 90 billion barrels of oil, 47 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas in the region. While trying to find and use natural gas and oil reserves in the region, Denmark, which has a coast in the Arctic region, produces renewable energy by taking advantage of the strong wind in the region.

The Arctic Region contains more than a third of the world’s hydrocarbon reserves. It is an unanswered question, which country has how much right to these reserves owned by the Arctic region. Countries bordering the Arctic carry out exploration activities within their EEZs. The use of marine resources in areas outside the EEZs of these countries is solved with the concept of continental shelf defined within the framework of the UNCLOS. Scientific research is decisive in determining the continental shelves, which are defined as the uninterrupted extension of a land piece underwater. This situation leads countries that do not have a coast to the Arctic to use scientific research as an entry ticket to the region. Many countries are trying to collect more information about the region by doing research at the poles and so to get a share of the economic activities that will take place here in the future.

It is known that 1,281,000 tons of cargo passed through the region, which is becoming more attractive in trade day by day, and this amount is exactly three times more than in 2018.

Turkey’s presence in Poles

The first Turk who went to Antarctica for scientific work was Atok Karaali, who worked at the Plateau Station of the US in 1967. Later, Professor Serap Tilav and Professor Umran Inan also conducted studies in the region and the names of these Turkish scientists were given to “Karaali Rocks,” “Tilav Ice Tongue,” and “Inan Hill.”

ITU Polar Research Center (ITU PolReC), the first polar research center in Turkey, was established in 2015. Thanks to this institution, which came under the auspices of the Presidency as an Antarctic project in 2017, three national expeditions to Antarctica took place under the responsibility of the Industry and Technology Ministry. The main goal of this project, which later turned into TUBITAK Marmara Research Center Polar Research Institute, is to make Turkey a consultant country and to establish a Turkish science base in Antarctica.

The number of scientific publications contributed to the literature by Turkish scientists, who have been organizing scientific expeditions to Antarctica annually since 2017, is increasing day by day. Turkish scientists discovered new species with samples taken from the Arctic and Antarctic, bacteria that will reduce the harmful effects of pesticides and algae that will allow wounds to heal faster were among the first fruits of these studies.

Turkey’s National Polar Science Program consists of four main titles. These are physical sciences, earth sciences, life sciences, and social and human sciences. The Republic of Turkey aims to cooperate with all states on scientific research in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Fierce polar rivalry between great powers

The biggest power struggle in the Arctic is between the US, Russia and China. According to the document “Strategy of development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and the provision of national security for the period to 2035”, the continental shelf of the Russian Federation in the Arctic contains more than 85.1 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 17.3 billion tons of oil. By 2035, Russia also aims to increase its infrastructure such as ports, logistics facilities and ships in the Arctic.

On the other hand, the US seeks to increase its military power in the region against China and Russia, which cooperate in the Arctic. In fact, the increasing Chinese presence at the poles caused former US President Donald Trump to propose purchasing Greenland from Denmark in 2019. Although the US could not buy the island, it took steps to control the Chinese presence in the region by signing a series of agreements with Denmark and Greenland, covering the Thule Air Base on the island, as well as trade, energy and environmental protection.

China sees the Arctic as the “New Silk Road” to shorten traditional trade routes by an average of 10 to 12 days and continues scientific research, resource extraction and infrastructure construction in the region. China, which is 1,500 kilometers away from the Arctic Circle, declared itself a state close to the North Pole and became involved in the competition in the region. China, which wants to take an early part in the transportation and competition environment that will occur as a result of the melting of glaciers in the near future plans to build the necessary infrastructure in the region.

In recent years, India, Canada, China, EU, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden and the UK have published either new or updated strategy papers for the poles. In addition, different institutions of the US have also put forward their own strategies for the poles. According to these strategy documents, which do not consider the poles only in the context of climate change [but see] the poles are regions that are directly related to the national security of the countries. Interestingly, each country is uncomfortable with the others’ existence there. Interestingly, each country is uncomfortable with the others’ existence there. This discomfort stands out, especially between the US, Russia and China.

As long as Russia, which has deep disagreements with the West, continues to meet its investment needs in the Arctic region with Chinese financing, and China keeps its feet firmly on the ground in the region every day, the competition for the areas of the poles that no one owns will grow further. It seems that weather will not be the only thing that warming, rapid melting of the glaciers, but the competitive environment in the polar regions will intensify, and tension will increase as well.

**Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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