The Arctic is now open for business year-round after a large commercial ship sailed the Northern Sea Route from Jiangsu, China, to a Russian gas plant on the Arctic coast, for the first time ever during the month of February, when winter temperatures normally make the icy waterway impassable.
The tanker, owned by Russian maritime shipping company Sovcomflot, was able to make the trip through the Arctic sea ice because it is no longer frozen all winter due to human-induced global warming.
The ability to make this trip 365 days a year opens up vast new possibilities for the shipping industry, which carries 80 percent of the world’s cargo by volume and 70 percent of global trade by value. But it also raises concerns about how the scramble to capitalize on the new route could upend geopolitics.
To get a better understanding of what this new possibility in the Arctic means for the rest of the world, I spoke to Juliette Kayyem, Belfer senior lecturer in international security at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Kayyem served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, where she played a key role in handling major operations, including the administration’s response to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Kayyem reacted on Twitter to the news of the Arctic tanker’s historic trip, writing that the moment was “so consequential you can’t get your head around it.” To find out more about why she thinks this is so monumental, I gave her a call. Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.
What exactly has changed with this news?
In the past, trade had to work in a north-to-south way, just because the Arctic had never been navigational. Now ships can go from Europe to China on an east-west route. It’s going to put more competition on the north-south passages to retain their commercial activity.
Eighty percent of the world’s goods by volume are shipped by cargo, so this is no joke. For 100 years, cargo has essentially followed the same pathway through the Suez Canal. So, with days cut off transit time, as well as [not having to pay] all the taxes and fees that align with being a port city or canal like the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal — that’s all going to change.
How does this change, for example, how a Chinese cargo ship would have traveled?
To do Europe alone, China would have gone from the Netherlands through the Suez Canal — south of India, up to China to Dalian, which is their main area. Now if you look at the route, it’s cut off by half. Now, you can go the northern route, east down. It’s mind-boggling.
So, Russia and China are obviously going to be interested in moving goods up through that Northern Sea Route. Which other countries will be vying for a stake?
Japan, Vietnam, Russia, pretty much every country. Australia is going to want to go through there. I mean, why wouldn’t they, since it’s so much shorter? Now there’s going to be pressure and competition. Now you’ve just [opened up] a huge, huge competitive market.
What about the US?
The United States, because we don’t really sign treaties anymore, is not signatory to the Law of the Sea. But we are a member of the Arctic Council, which is a sort of ad hoc [international] system to try to deal with everything in the Arctic, from who has access to what minerals to [how to manage] traffic.
What do you think will be the impact of this new competition?
There are two pieces: the environmental piece and the geopolitical piece. For the environment, this is the equivalent of an ocean opening up. The waters are going to move in ways that they hadn’t moved before. The ice is melting in ways that mean that the water has to go somewhere, and that is going to cause sea level rise, impacting coastal cities…