James Holmes

Norway’s Arctic Power Play, Asia Dream

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James Holmes

Norway’s Arctic Power Play, Asia Dream

Could climate change and a receding polar ice cap open new opportunities for Norway in Asia?

Editor’s Note: The Following is a guest post from Amund Lundesgaard,  a visiting fellow at the United States Naval War College and a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo.

Situated in the northernmost corner of Europe and bordering the Arctic, Norway will in the future be situated squarely between the EU and East Asia, elevating its importance to countries in these regions and providing a new and prosperous business for coastal Norway.

At least, that is the hope of Norwegian entrepreneurs and politicians with a maritime outlook. Norway is a long way from East Asia, so why the sudden optimism?

Although it is probably decades away from being a reality, climate change and a receding polar ice cap have the Norwegians hoping that the Arctic Ocean eventually will constitute a commercially viable shipping route between the north Pacific and north Atlantic. As a seafaring nation, Norway currently has interests in Asia due to its merchant fleet, and with a navigable Arctic Ocean, Norwegian interests can be tied more closely to this region.

The International Maritime Organization is currently working on making its polar code for ships mandatory, and if this succeeds, new ships will have to be ordered if shipping companies wish to transit the Arctic. The idea is that by investing in such ships, Norwegian shipping companies will profit on trans-Arctic traffic. Furthermore, the technologically advanced Norwegian shipbuilding industry will face increasing demand for its products, and additionally be much closer to important Asian markets. If these hopes materialize into actual developments, Asia’s importance to Norway will increase, and ties between Norway and countries in the region could become closer.

Furthermore, a navigable Arctic Ocean may shave transportation time and costs significantly. Given that trans-Arctic transport saves money, it is likely to bring about an increase in shipping, and ships will probably hug the Norwegian coast rather closely on their way between East Asia and the EU. Norway could then profit from servicing such trans-Arctic traffic.

The hope of politicians and business interests, predominantly in Northern Norway, is that the relatively advanced state of Norwegian infrastructure will give it a competitive edge over Russia, whose arctic infrastructure is very limited. Hence, if the International Maritime Organization makes its Polar Code mandatory, the thought is that polar equipped vessels will load and unload their Europe and Asia bound cargoes at ports in Northern Norway, while regular ships take care of the Norway-Europe leg.

A new shipping route will not only bring opportunities, however, but also many challenges. Apart from the challenges of search and rescue operations and environmental protection, Norway is weary of the great power interests such a route could attract. The Russians view the narrow waterways along its northern coast as internal waters, and therefore governed by Russian law. But this opinion is not shared by everyone, the most outspoken critic being the United States, which argues that they are international straits, and as such are governed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Disagreement, and even conflict, over such issues may directly affect the viability of this northern sea route, and it is not unlikely that East Asian powers, such as China and Japan, may disagree with Russia on this issue.

The undiscovered resources that are expected to exist in the Arctic Ocean also have the potential to cause disagreements. While the Norwegian government hopes for peaceful interaction in the region, it is nevertheless bolstering its military presence in the Arctic to exercise its jurisdiction in Norwegian waters. And if the Arctic Ocean does become a strategically important sea lane, it is likely that Asian powers such as China will increase their presence in the area. Who knows, in 30 or 40 years, Norwegian and Asian naval assets may interact on a regular basis.