Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

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The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
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Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers. (AFP)
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This photo taken on August 17, 2019 shows an iceberg caving with a mass of ice breaking away from the Apusiajik glacier in Sermersooq island in Greenland. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP)
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A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)
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Sea ice is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft off the northwest coast on March 30, 2017 above Greenland. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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A glacier is seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft on March 30, 2017 above Ellesmere Island, Canada. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

Specter of Arctic standoff looms as melting sea ice upsets geostrategic balance 

  • Climate change is disrupting the environmental balance of the Arctic with potential global ramifications 
  • Arctic states are jostling for control of shipping lanes, natural resources and strategic advantage as polar ice retreats

BERN, Switzerland: America is back. That was the message Joe Biden wanted to drive home during his first foreign foray as US president — an eight-day Europe tour in June.

The soft-power offensive has been welcomed by America’s European allies after four years of turbulence in transatlantic ties. But it has also brought the West’s long-simmering rivalries with Russia and China to the surface — including the possibility of a nasty confrontation over the Arctic region.

The Arctic is a physical space where geopolitics meets climate change, and where competition over access to natural resources collides with contested commercial and military shipping routes. These are matters that will have serious ramifications well beyond the handful of nations that border the North Pole.

The poles are often described as the Earth’s thermostat, reacting to even the slightest changes in sea temperature. The Arctic has warmed at twice the pace of the rest of the globe and, according to NASA, its sea ice has declined by 13.1 percent during the past decade.

Melting sea ice is contributing to rising sea levels, causing Arctic coastlines to gradually vanish. The process is being accelerated by the thawing of permafrost, which releases long-trapped pockets of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

The rapid retreat of Arctic ice is opening up long-frozen sea lanes for the first time in millennia, exposing the region’s natural resources and shipping lanes to commercial and military exploitation.

According to Bloomberg, about 30 percent of undiscovered gas reserves and 13 percent of oil reserves are estimated to lie beneath the Arctic region. However, the race to claim these vast riches collides with the emerging global consensus of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Arctic Council deliberated over these issues in late May when its members met in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The multilateral body of eight member states bordering the Arctic region and 13 observer nations was founded 25 years ago to address such issues as the rights of indigenous groups, climate change, oil and gas development, and shipping. Its mandate does not, however, extend to the realm of defense.

When Iceland passed the two-year rotating presidency of the organization to Russia last month, divergent views and geopolitical tensions came to the fore. The summit coincided with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The latter had stirred the pot by declaring “the Arctic is our land and our waters.




US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 19, 2021. (Saul Loeb / Pool / AFP)

The sentiment is understandable from Lavrov’s perspective, given that Russia extracts about 90 percent of its natural gas, 17 percent of its oil, and 90 percent of its nickel from the Arctic, which also contains the majority of its platinum and palladium reserves.

The Russian economy is highly dependent on mineral extraction. In 2019 the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment estimated that oil, gas, mining and raw materials amount to about 60 percent to Russia’s gross domestic product.

Moscow and Washington have differing visions on matters concerning the Arctic, among them the fine balance between energy production, natural-resource extraction and the quest to halt climate change.

At the start of his term, Biden suspended the oil-drilling rights north of the Arctic circle that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had granted. The Kremlin, however, intends to expand its drilling operations.




A soldier stands near a Russia's Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system on the island of Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. (Maxime Popov / AFP)

Novatek’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) project on the Arctic Yamal peninsula is producing at 114 percent of capacity on its four trains. In March the company approved external financing for the $11 billion Arctic LNG 2 project, which will start production in 2023. The project is expected to reach a production level of 20 million tons by 2026. Fundraising efforts will take place in Russia, China, Japan and Europe.

Energy is where China enters the fray. Saudi Arabia and Russia alternate as Beijing’s largest oil supplier. In 2020, China received 16.8 percent of its crude oil from the Kingdom and 15.3 percent from Russia.

CLIMATEFACTS

Sea ice keeps polar regions cool, helps moderate global climate.

Ice surface reflects back into space 80% of the sunlight that hits it.

As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface.

Temperatures rise as the ocean absorbs 90% of sunlight and heats up.

The poles are the regions of the Earth most sensitive to climate change.

Owing to an especially cold winter, China’s pipeline imports of natural gas via Russia’s eastern (Siberian) route reached 28.8 million cubic meters a day in early 2021 — double the 2020 contract, according to S&P Global Platts. In 2020, Russia was the sixth-largest LNG supplier to China after Australia, Qatar, the US, Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Argus.

China has become an important financier of major energy-infrastructure projects in Russia’s Arctic region and Siberia. One reason for this is that US sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 coincided with China’s growing thirst for energy and rising affluence.

However, some Russian experts are concerned about the growing dependence on Chinese money to fund the Arctic expansion, an undertaking of vital national importance to Moscow. Arctic Council members and observers are therefore watching the Sino-Russian relationship very closely.




Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers.  (AFP)

The valuable resources beneath the seafloor are not the only prize at stake in this polar scramble. The Arctic shipping route, from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, stretches for 5,550 kilometers and constitutes the shortest possible route between Asia and Europe.

The Northern Sea Route used to be open to ships for only 80 days of the year, frozen over for the remaining 285. Now it allows passage for 120 to 150 days, courtesy of the melting ice caps. Researchers at Kyoto University expect this time window will widen to 225 days.

The Northern Sea Route shortens the passage from China to Europe by 10 to 12 days, compared with the sea journey via the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Although the route is relatively shallow, limiting the size of vessels able to traverse it, control of it has obvious strategic and commercial benefits.

 

 

During his European tour, among engagements designed to shore up Western solidarity, Biden attended the UK-hosted G7 summit in Cornwall, met with NATO chiefs in Brussels and held his first tete-a-tete with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. Relations between Vladimir Putin-led Russia and the West are currently too frosty to patch up without addressing the many underlying differences.

Take Arctic freight traffic. Putin wants to expand its volume by 2.5 times to 80 million tons by 2024. This “Polar Silk Road” would have serious ramifications far beyond the Arctic circle, placing it in direct competition with the Suez Canal and major ports from the Mediterranean and the Middle East to Southeast Asia.

There is also a defense dimension to the changing geography of the Arctic. Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, famously called the Arctic a peaceful place. The great powers and their armed forces had little choice but to avoid creating conflict there, given the inhospitable climate and impassable sheets of ice




Russian icebreaker ships and LNG transport vessels cruise in the Arctic. (REUTERS/Olesya Astakhova)

Not so now. With sea lanes open much longer than ever before and competition over natural resources in full swing, the potential for a confrontation between the big powers, and their air and naval forces, is growing ever more likely.

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, recently voiced such concerns over the mounting Russian and Chinese military presence in the region at the same time as US forces are shifting strategic emphasis toward the Arctic.

To sum up, climate change is upsetting both the environmental and strategic balance of the Arctic, with far-reaching ramifications for the hydrocarbon economy, maritime trade — and perhaps even peaceful coexistence.

_________

Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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US designates Pakistan militant group, Al-Qaeda branch ‘terrorist’ groups

Updated 25 min 29 sec ago

US designates Pakistan militant group, Al-Qaeda branch ‘terrorist’ groups

  • Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan ended a monthslong cease-fire with Pakistan and resumed attacks
  • Pakistani Taliban were behind the 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed 147 people

ISLAMABAD: The United States has added the key Pakistani militant group and the Al-Qaeda branch to its list of “global terrorists,” triggering sanctions against the groups amid a resurgence of militant violence in this Islamic nation.
Thursday’s move by the State Department comes days after the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, known as TTP, ended a monthslong cease-fire with Pakistan and resumed attacks across the country.
The threat issued by the TTP forced Pakistani authorities to take additional measures, and security was tight on orders from the Interior Ministry outside worship and other public places Friday amid fears of more attacks. TTP has asked its fighters to target security forces across the country. Pakistani Taliban were behind the 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed 147 people, mostly schoolchildren.
The State Department said Thursday it has designated TTP and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists.”
The agency’s statement said the US is “committed to using its full set of counterterrorism tools to counter the threat posed by terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including Al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP)” to keep militants from using Afghanistan as “a platform for international terrorism.”
“As a result of these actions,” the statement said, “all property and interests in property of those designated (Thursday) that are subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and all US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them.”
The United States also named four members of TTP and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent Osama Mehmood, the head of the Al-Qaeda branch, Yahya Ghouri, the deputy chief of Al-Qaeda’s branch, and Muhammad Maruf, who is responsible for recruitment for the group.
It also designated TTP’s leader, Qari Amjad, who oversees militant attacks in northwest Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden was killed in a US Navy SEALs operation in May 2011 in his hiding place in the garrison city of Abbottabad, not far from the capital of Islamabad, and TTP emerged after Pakkistan became a key ally of the United States in its war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
There was no immediate comment from Pakistan, but the latest development comes after Islamabad asked the Taliban in Afghanistan to prevent TTP from using their soil for attacks inside the Islamic nation. The demand from Pakistan came after a suicide bomber dispatched by TTP blew himself up near a truck carrying police assigned to protect polio workers in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province.
TTP has claimed responsibility for the attack, which has drawn nationwide condemnation.
The Pakistani Taliban are a separate group but allied with Afghanistan’s Taliban, who have ruled their country since the US and NATO troops withdrew last year. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan emboldened their Pakistani allies, whose top leaders and fighters are hiding in the next door country.


Philippines’ largest prison holds mass burial for 70 inmates

Updated 02 December 2022

Philippines’ largest prison holds mass burial for 70 inmates

  • They were among 176 corpses found by police during an investigation into the death of an inmate
  • Bodies are normally held at accredited funeral homes for three months to give relatives time to retrieve them

MANILA: The bodies of 70 inmates from the Philippines’ largest prison were laid to rest Friday in a mass burial, weeks after their decomposing remains were discovered in a Manila funeral home.
They were among 176 corpses found by police during an investigation into the death of an inmate, who was accused of being involved in the killing of a journalist in early October.
Most of the deaths were due to “natural causes,” said Cecilia Villanueva, the Bureau of Corrections’ acting director for health and welfare services.
Among them was a Japanese national.
Villanueva said 127 of the 140 bodies buried so far were badly decomposed and could not be autopsied again.
The bodies began piling up in the funeral home in December 2021 after their families — most of them poor — did not claim them.
Villanueva blamed “constraints” for the failure of corrections staff to ensure the inmates were given timely burials.
Bodies are normally held at the accredited funeral home for three months to give relatives time to retrieve them.
Friday’s mass burial was the biggest ever by the Bureau of Corrections, Villanueva told reporters.
Minimum security inmates carried the 70 plywood coffins to their final resting place — cheap concrete tombs in a cemetery inside the prison complex.
The gruesome discovery at the funeral home was only the latest scandal to rock the troubled Bureau of Corrections, which runs the country’s overcrowded prison system.
Its chief Gerald Bantag is accused of ordering the killing of radio broadcaster Percival Mabasa, as well as Cristito Villamor Palana, an inmate who allegedly passed on the kill order to the gunman.
After Bantag was suspended from his job as director general, a huge pit was discovered next to his former official residence inside the prison complex.
Bantag claims it was for scuba diving, not an escape tunnel for inmates.
Among the remaining bodies still at the funeral home, eight would be re-examined by Raquel Fortun, one of the country’s two forensic pathologists.
Villanueva said an average of one to two prisoners died every day inside New Bilibid Prison, where about 29,000 inmates are held in a facility designed for 6,435.
There were only five doctors to treat the prisoners, but the Bureau of Corrections was trying to hire more.
“We are doing everything we can, we try to provide health care, just as health care is provided to the public, but there are so many constraints,” Villanueva said.


Finnish PM warns Russian win would empower aggressors

Updated 02 December 2022

Finnish PM warns Russian win would empower aggressors

  • First-ever visit by a Finnish prime minister to Australia and New Zealand
  • ’Make no mistake, if Russia wins its terrible gamble, it will not be the only one to feel empowered’

CANBERRA: Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin warned an Australian audience Friday that a Russian victory over Ukraine would empower other aggressors and urged democracies against forming “critical dependencies” on authoritarian states such as China.
Marin was speaking in Sydney at the end of the first-ever visit by a Finnish prime minister to Australia and New Zealand. Australia’s pursuit of a free trade deal with the European Union was on the agenda.
She used a speech to urge democracies to ramp up sanctions against Russia.
“Make no mistake, if Russia wins its terrible gamble, it will not be the only one to feel empowered,” Marin told the Lowy Institute international policy think tank.
“Others will also be tempted by the same dark agenda,” she added.
A free trade agreement being finalized between the European Union, which includes Finland, and Australia was an opportunity to develop resilient supply chains, she said.
“We have become far too dependent on cooperation with regimes that do not share our common values,” Marin said, using Finland’s reliance on Russian energy as an example.
“Our dependencies are becoming our weaknesses faster and in more important areas of our societies than we would like to happen,” she added.
She described trade with China as a “reality.”
“We all have worries when it comes to China and we must make sure that we don’t have that kind of critical dependencies when it comes to China,” Marin said.
“We cannot be dependent, for example, on microchips or semiconductors or any kind of critical technologies when it comes to authoritarian countries. Because if those trading routes would be cut suddenly, then we would be in trouble,” she added.
Marin later met Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at his official Sydney residence. The pair released a joint statement saying their talks “underlined the need to work together in strengthening their resilience as open and democratic societies and in fostering sustainable development.”
They prime ministers “agreed that managing complex supply chains, energy sources and investing in trustworthy critical and emerging technologies was needed to promote economic, political, social and environmental stability as well as human rights,” the statement said.
Australia, which is the most generous donor to Ukraine’s war effort outside NATO, and Finland, a country that is soon to become a NATO member and shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, demanded in the statement Moscow immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine.


Up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed since Russian invasion: Zelensky aide

Updated 02 December 2022

Up to 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed since Russian invasion: Zelensky aide

  • 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in the nearly seven months of fighting

KYIV: As many as 13,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed since Russia’s invasion in February, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky has said.
“We have official estimates from the General Staff... And they range from 10,000 ... to 13,000 dead,” Mykhailo Podolyak told Ukraine’s Channel 24 on Thursday.
Zelensky would make the official data public “when the right moment comes,” he added.
In June, as Russian forces battled to take full control of the easternmost Lugansk region, Zelensky said Ukraine was losing “60 to 100 soldiers per day, killed in action, and around 500 people wounded in action.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in September said 5,937 Russian troops had been killed in the nearly seven months of fighting to that point.
Both sides are suspected of minimizing their losses to avoid damaging the morale of their troops.
Top US general Mark Milley last month said more than 100,000 Russian military personnel have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, with Kyiv’s forces likely suffering similar casualties.
Those figures — which could not be independently confirmed — are the most precise to date from the US government.
Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the worst fighting in Europe in decades.


US, South Korea and Japan impose fresh sanctions on North Korea

Updated 02 December 2022

US, South Korea and Japan impose fresh sanctions on North Korea

  • US Treasury Department threatened sanctions against anyone dealing with those directly involved in weapons development
  • Washington’s action blocks assets of three North Korean officials in the US

WASHINGTON: The United States, Japan and South Korea have imposed fresh sanctions on North Korean individuals and entities in response to Pyongyang’s recent slew of missile tests.
Washington’s action, announced Thursday, blocks any assets of three North Korean officials in the United States, a largely symbolic step against an isolated country that has defied international pressure over its weapons programs.
The US Treasury Department also threatened sanctions against anyone who conducts transactions with Jon Il Ho, Yu Jin and Kim Su Gil, who were identified as directly involved in weapons development.
The recent North Korean missile launches, including the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile with the range to hit the US mainland, “pose grave security risks to the region and entire world,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
The sanctions “underscore our sustained resolve to promote accountability in response to Pyongyang’s pace, scale and scope of ballistic missile launches.”
Blinken added that the action was taken in coordination with US allies South Korea and Japan, and noted that the European Union issued similar designations of the three in April.
Tokyo and Seoul on Friday also announced new sanctions.
South Korea said it would target eight individuals, including a Taiwanese and a Singaporean national.
They have “contributed to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and evasion of (pre-existing) sanctions,” the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.
All are already subject to US sanctions, the ministry added, and South Korea’s new restrictions are expected to “alert the domestic and international community of the risks of transactions with these entities.”
And Japan said that in response to Pyongyang’s “provocative acts,” it was freezing the assets of three North Korean groups — Korea Haegumgang Trading Corp, Korea Namgang Trading Corp. and Lazarus Group — and one person, Kim Su Il.
The United States has voiced frustration that China, North Korea’s closest ally, and Russia have blocked efforts at the UN Security Council to impose tougher sanctions.

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