Commentary: France is drumbeating an environmental cause as part of a wider geopolitical strategy to gain more influence over Arctic decision making in the future.
Over the past two years, a number of prominent companies, including Nike and Gap, have joined forces and put their weights behind an environmental campaign spearheaded by Ocean Conservancy pledging to avoid Arctic shipping by cutting ties with any shipping firm that uses Arctic routes such as the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage.
Similarly, a number of international banks, such as Barclay and Goldman Sachs, have pleaded to stop financing Arctic projects. The key line of argument is that harsh and unpredictable Arctic climate, irregular movement of ice sheets, extreme darkness, long distances, an acute infrastructural deficit, and the region’s pristine ecosystem make shipping and exploration extremely risky.
Echoing such concerns, most interestingly, French President, Emanuel Macron, has added his voice to such calls urging more shipping companies to join the initiative.
However, one cannot help but to be suspicious of Macron’s real intention given that France’s energy giant, Total, is one of the most active international energy companies in the Arctic energy sector. Put differently, if Mr. Macron is so worried about the Arctic environment, why has he not pressured Total to terminate its Arctic project?
After all the risks of an oil spillage are as high as, if not higher than a shipping incident. The fact of the matter is that France is drumbeating an environmental cause as part of a wider geopolitical strategy to gain more influence over Arctic decision making in the future.
As an observer state, France has no say on Arctic affairs within the Arctic Council while its influence over Arctic decision making in general seems to be slim. Aware of the rising importance of the Arctic on both economic and geostrategic fronts, Paris seems to be pursuing a twofold Arctic policy in order to compensate for its non-observer status and thus gain influence over decision makings on Arctic affairs both within the EU and the Arctic Council.
On the one hand, Paris has been one of the most active players in the Arctic energy scene. Notwithstanding western sanctions on Russia, not only Total, with the blessing of the French government, has not reduced its presence in the Russia’s Arctic energy projects but in fact it has increased its involvement.
Working in close cooperation with Russian and Chinese energy companies, Total has shares in some of the largest projects in the region. Commercially, this fits in well with the company’s drive to establish a diversified portfolio of projects as a means to reduce its vulnerability to socio-political developments in any one particular region.
Politically, this enables the French government to play a key role in the Arctic’s energy sector which is set to grow in size and importance as more areas, thanks to the climate change, become available for exploration.
By championing the environmental cause, on the other hand, France is seeking to set the discourse on responsible behavior within the Arctic maritime sector so it can both shape events and simultaneously put a cap on Russia’s growing influence in the region.
Japan, South Korea, Denmark and Norway are clearly opposed to a total ban on Arctic shipping.
Russia has been at the forefront of calls for the development of Northern Sea Route as a viable alternative to Suez Canal. Given the importance of the region to the Russian state’s identity, economic growth, and geopolitical status, Moscow is in fact reported to be actively considering to subsidize insurance and ice breaker costs for shipping companies using the NSR.
Distorting the prospect of increased shipping in the Arctic, thus, serves a critical geopolitical interest under a noble disguise (fighting climate change) by depriving an adversary from increased income, influence and prestige.
This zero sum calculation, should it bear fruit, can then be used as a bargaining card to either extract concessions from Moscow in other theatres and/or gain more say in the Arctic governance.
Given the importance of shipping in Beijing’s Arctic strategy, moreover, its stigmatization can also frustrate China’s efforts at establishing a polar silk road. However, on the downside, this could backfire thereby bringing Moscow and Beijing one important inch closer to each other since both share a desire to develop Arctic’s maritime routes and infrastructure.
In fact, maritime cooperation is already one of the pillars of Sino-Russo partnership in the Arctic. This is not to mention the fact that Japan, South Korea, Denmark and Norway too are clearly opposed to a total ban on the Arctic shipping albeit for different reasons.
Similar to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are interested in the commercial potentials of a shortened route to Europe as well as Arctic’s vast resources. In fact, the three Asian giants have been holding their own high level trilateral dialogue on the Arctic since 2016.
While sharing their Asian counterparts commercial interests, Denmark and Norway are also concerned that calls for a total ban could have a direct bearing on the economic wellbeing and livelihood of the local communities.
As such, they assert that it is best to divert attention and resources towards the promotion of low or zero emission shipping.
All in all, as this vast and largely ungoverned space opens up, discourses on globalization, climate change, and energy security will be the great fault-lines of the Arctic’s geopolitics and Artic governance.
Fueled by a desire for both status and material security, non-Arctic states like France are therefore likely to intensify their discursive efforts in order to set and/or influence the normative framework of ‘responsible behavior’ and buy themselves more relevance and influence.