The end of the Cold War gradually raised the Arctic’s importance, and it did so for two reasons. The current multipolar power distribution means the addition of two independent or largely independent political actors, namely the EU and China, and the shifting of the global economic “center of gravity” eastward.
This development is increasing Russia’s importance as the economic and political link between the EU and China. However, while the European and Asian economic powerhouses are exploring various forms of economic linkages with Russia serving as a vital component of the relationship, United States is actively seeking to drive a wedge between them by isolating the EU from Russia and therefore also China, and fully subordinating Europe to its economic and political interests. Whether the EU acquiesces to being merely a US protectorate or asserts its independence remains to be seen, however, in the meantime the Arctic is acquiring importance as a trade route linking Europe and Asia. The second reason for the Arctic’s importance is the presence of considerable reserves of energy resources in the region on which the global economy will depend. National control over these resources or lack thereof will in turn determine the power ranking of the country in question.
And since we are increasingly in a world where “possession is 9/10ths of the law”, anyone seeking to access the Arctic and maintain permanent presence there will have to maintain a sizable force of icebreakers in order to ensure navigation in areas which are temporarily or permanently ice-bound. Each of interested powers already maintains an icebreaker fleet whose size and importance is only going to increase in the coming decades.
Looking at the current situation and the emerging trends, it would appear that the two Eurasian powers, Russia and China, will remain dominant in the Arctic at least during the coming decade.
While the United States is starting to get into the game, it is clearly very low on its list of priorities. The fact that the US capabilities are being stretched very thin indeed and the sorry state of America’s finances mean that US Arctic capabilities, military or otherwise, will receive veritable crumbs in terms of funding. Canada’s sovereignty is being gradually eroded by the United States and may lose its status as an Arctic player altogether in the next decade, particularly if icebreaker construction will have to compete for funding with the F-35 fighters which the United States is bent on imposing on Canada. China remains the wild card.
At the moment, it seems content to rely on Russia’s icebreaking capabilities in the region, however, should US-China competition in the region intensify, the PRC will become more proactive in exerting its influence in the region.