Arctic Circle 2022 gathers sans Russians but with a NATO admiral, Chinese officials, and a Faroese metal band, proving that geopolitics can both be fun and strategic games.
For the past decade – pandemic years aside – Iceland’s picturesque capital, Reykjavik, has hosted one of the largest gatherings on the future of the Arctic. The conference, “Arctic Circle,” is jokingly referred to as “Arctic Circus” given the cast of characters who assemble in the opalescent, Olafur Eliasson-designed concert hall, Harpa. This year, with Russian participants glaringly absent, the circus was missing much of its usual brigade. Apart from the staggering loss of half the Arctic, however, the 2,000 people in attendance comprised the usual motley crew of foreign policymakers, scientists, entrepreneurs, Indigenous representatives, diplomats, and municipal officials from across the north.
The closing plenary sessions exemplified the conference’s seemingly haphazard but carefully choreographed nature. In the waning hours of the final day, NATO Admiral Rob Bauer (Royal Netherlands Navy), Chair of the Military Committee, gave a speech in which he called for beefing up the alliance’s northern presence. He pointed fingers at Russia and China, the latter of which he described as “another authoritarian regime that does not share our values and undermines the rules-based international order.” Beijing, he warned, is “building the world’s largest icebreaker and planning for more conventional heavy icebreakers, some of which are nuclear powered.”
Bauer also connected China’s interest in shipping shortcuts to military maneuvers when he added, in what was arguably a bit of a leap, “By embracing shortened distances and reaction times, [Chinese] naval formations could move more quickly from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and submarines could shelter in the Arctic if required.” Finally, the NATO admiral chastised Beijing for failing to distance itself from Putin’s war in Ukraine.
At one point, the plenary moderator, former Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grímsson asked Bauer where he sees NATO’s enhanced defense capability being placed. He responded:
“It very much depends on what Russia and China are doing. First and foremost, Russia–that is our first and foremost threat at the moment. It depends on what they are doing in the Arctic and in what way they are affecting our freedom to maneuver. If the Northern route were to open, we’d have a new flank in the Arctic…which would mean we would have to do more in the North. So, I’d say, the Central and the Eastern part of the Arctic.”
At another moment, an Icelandic pastor asked Bauer of his opinion regarding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s suggestion to Western allies that “they assault Russian with a preventative nuclear strike.” Confusion surrounded this query, as Bauer seemed to have not heard of this inflammatory proposal. (It turns out that the Ukrainian government has been engaging in damage control to clarify Zelensky’s recommendation. During a call to the Sydney-based Lowy Institute in October, Zelensky had asked for NATO and the international community to engage in preventative “action” and not, in fact, “strikes.”)
Bauer quickly overcame his perplexity and seized the chance to offer a clear message. The Dutch commander boomed, “That will not happen. NATO is a defensive alliance. There will not be a preemptive strike. We are not at war with Russia. It should be very clear to everyone in this room – we are not at war with Russia.” (Fortunately for Bauer, while George Orwell was busy rolling in his grave, the whizzing of the rockets, missiles, and other weaponry provided by 25 NATO members to Ukraine couldn’t be heard inside Harpa.)
While there were no Russians in the room willing or even able to contest Bauer’s response, a small Chinese delegation was. Sitting ten rows from the front, the Ambassador of China to Iceland, He Rulong, raised his hand. After President Grimsson called on him, he removed his white surgical mask adorned with the red-and-yellow flag of China. Looking Bauer directly in the eye, he declared, “Your speech is full of arrogance and paranoia. The Arctic is an area for high cooperation and low tension. The Arctic plays an important role when it comes to climate change.”
It was a moment of real-life geopolitical drama that made the plenary stage far tenser than the day before, when the director (via livestream) and a star of the fictional geopolitical drama Borgen, set in Greenland, took to the spotlight. Bauer did not respond to He’s comments, leaving the hall to crackle with the frisson of sour grapes until the next plenary began. After Musa Filibus, Archbishop of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria and President of the Lutheran World Federation, finished his speech and Q&A session, he graciously played the role of peacemake, quipping, “Thank you very much that I could mediate between NATO and China.”
The African archbishop’s insertion between NATO and the subsequent plenary, belonging to China’s Special Envoy on Arctic Affairs, Gao Feng, demonstrated yet again the deft planning of Arctic Circle. In many ways, the marquee event is as carefully geopolitically scripted as Borgen.
For that matter, so, too, was Gao Feng’s speech. He went through the usual motions of underscoring China’s commitment to combating climate change and to promoting international cooperation in the Arctic. But when asked during the question and answer session, “Does China’s military have a role in the Arctic?” (by, of all people, a representative of an Alaskan Christian youth environmental organization) the Chinese ambassador gave an unexpected response. He explained:
“In theory, yes, because we are one of five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council. If there is a task authorizing us to go there, and there is a task for us to implement, we can go there. If there’s no task, we don’t go there. You can see we don’t have a single soldier in the Arctic region. Don’t believe the rumors. You can easily check out whether we have any soldier in the Arctic.”
Feng’s instrumentalization of the United Nations to legitimize a hypothetical Chinese military presence of the Arctic fits within Beijing’s playbook of advancing Chinese national interests under the cover of international organizations. China, for instance, has rallied behind the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which it claims its multi-trillion-dollar global infrastructure blueprint, the Belt and Road Initiative, will help promote.
Typically, China has used international instruments and organizations as convenient cover for its goals relating to the environment and international development. Its use of entities born of the Washington Consensus to advance the rights of the Chinese military is thus more novel and potentially more subversive. By claiming to be a staunch advocate of the international order, China is taking direct aim at allegations that the country is undermining it.
Arctic Council: A rump state in China’s eyes
For all of China’s support of international organizations, during his speech, the Chinese special envoy diminished the standing of the Arctic Council given its hiatus. Feng called for reconvening the Arctic Circle, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine be damned. He urged:
“Geopolitical competition and confrontation should not impede or interrupt international cooperation in the Arctic. China hopes that the related multilateral cooperative institutions and mechanisms could resume operations soon, and people could set up or restore dialogues and cooperation and reactivate the programs already in their place. The Arctic cannot – we cannot afford – long-lasting pause or suspension or paralysis, or whatever you call it, of international organization in the Arctic. This is a clear and strong message I heard in the three days in Reykjavik. I definitely will take this home and share it with my colleagues working for the Arctic.”
During the Q&A, the former Icelandic president pressed the Chinese representative on the issue of the Arctic Council, whose chairmanship will, in theory, pass over from Russia to Norway in May 2023. Grimsson asked, “If the Arctic 7, when Norway takes over the chairmanship, will start operating the Arctic Council as a body of seven countries, will China turn up as an observer state?”
Feng began his answer by again summoning the law – that vaunted and incontrovertible system of rules that hold up the world. He explained, “I think, actually the first presentation I heard [at Arctic Circle]…was a discussion [among] some lawyers exactly on this topic. And the conclusion is that there will be no solution on that question right now. So, you see, the Arctic Council is based on the [Ottawa] Declaration, not a treaty with legally binding force. So there is no procedure to get anybody out of the Council. So, I really doubt that whether the presidency could be passed on to anybody, or, that Norway could take over. Because there is no procedure…”
At this point, Grimsson interjected with a simple, “Wow.”
Feng continued, “…on that issue. I was trained as a lawyer. So, my understanding, from the legal mind, is that Arctic Council is still there. There are still the observers. But if an A7 – the so called Arctic Council – comes to reality, I don’t think that is the original one. That will be a different one. You know, President, sir – you know that the Arctic Council is based on consensus – everybody knows that.”
The key point is that China, an Arctic Council observer, has taken the prerogative to declare that should Norway take over the multilateral organization and resume proceedings without Russia, it will no longer be operating by true consensus and will therefore be over and done. Not only is the Arctic warming: in China’s eyes, the Arctic Council is death warmed over, too.
The statements made by Chinese officials at Arctic Circle demonstrate that Beijing uses the United Nations, international law, and the principle of consensus to defend its interests. Among these are the right to have a military presence in the Arctic and the need to convene the Arctic Council with the participation of all eight member states, Russia included.
While it may seem that international institutions, instruments, and concepts are universal, interpretations differ starkly between west and east. For now, it seems that the Arctic Circle is at least doing something to bring the two together (sans Russia) under one roof, whereas the Arctic Council may not even be able to get China in the room.
Exit through the Faroese metal concert
At the end of the evening, delegates streamed downstairs for the conference’s final reception, hosted by the Faroe Islands. Everybody well and truly let their hair down once Faroese metal band Hamradun began bellowing into the microphones over their distorted guitars. It felt uncannily out of the film Spinal Tap, when the rockers played an Air Force base, only the surroundings were ever-so-slightly more Nordic. At Arctic Circle, geopolitics can be both fun and strategic games. Until 2023, Reykjavik – sjáumst (farewell).