The economic and geopolitics of the Arctic Challenge – Lawrence Zammit

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Recently people in Iceland met to mourn the death of a glacier, called Okjokull. The glacier was estimated to be 700 years old. It is estimated that over the next 200 years all glaciers on our planet will disappear. Many of us may have smirked when we read this bit of news.

We probably also smirked when we read that the President of the US offered to buy Greenland from Denmark. We probably wondered what Trump was up to. However, we need to appreciate that the loss of the glacier in Iceland and the request to buy Greenland are very much linked to each other. The common issue is climate change which is leading to the melting of the Arctic.

I have written about this point before as this eventual development will have a very big impact on relationships between countries as well as for Malta.

Trump’s decision to offer to buy Greenland from Denmark reflects the scramble there is for the Arctic, just like there was a scramble for Africa from the mid-17th century onwards.

Initially Europeans made slaves out of persons living in Africa and transported them to North America. As slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, these same European nations sought to colonise Africa. In a period of 40 years, the area of Africa that was colonised increased from 10 to 90 per cent. The objective was to take away anything they could, mainly minerals that were needed for industries operating in Europe. And look at the mess they left it in.

It would not be absurd to think that the migration flows from sub-Saharan Africa of today owe partly their origin to the period of slavery and to the period of the colonisation of the African continent. One must also not forget the decades of apartheid to which the people of South Africa were subjected to.

The Arctic could well be subjected to the same treatment. The climate crisis and global warming has encouraged a number of countries to start thinking of exploiting the resources of natural gas, oil and minerals that can be found in that northernmost region of the planet, motivated by their own nationalistic sentiments, with no concern at all for the harm they would cause to the environment and to the people living in the region. The issue is economic more than anything else.

The offer to buy Greenland has to be viewed from this perspective. The US does not have the length of coastline to the north as Canada or Russia have. The access of the US to the Arctic is just through Alaska, which is a very small access indeed. Owning Greenland would increase that access to the Arctic and therefore its natural resources, significantly. Worse still is that this scramble for the natural resources of the Arctic appears to be taking place without any rules.

China has also claimed that it has an interest in the Arctic, even though it has no coastline bordering it, leading to the fear that the exploitation of the Arctic could end up into a three-way conflict between the US, Russia and China, with the other bordering countries, Norway, Iceland, Canada, Sweden, Finland and Denmark as interested bystanders.

The melting of the Arctic will also mean the opening up of a sea route between China and Northern Europe, avoiding the need to go through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. It has been claimed that such a route would shorten the journey which ships take today via the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean by around 10 days. This could mean the end of the Mediterranean as a centre for international shipping – and would have a severe impact on our economy.

As such the Arctic challenge can truly spell danger. It could lead to conflict among the world’s powers and could damage our economy. As a country we should obviously follow developments there more closely.

The article, written by Economist Lawrence Zammit appeared on The Times of Malta print edition.

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