From Chinese ambition to Saami tradition, an Arctic snapshot


The challenges facing the Arctic have come into greater focus as the region becomes an arena of strategic competition for natural resources. A number of conferences addressed Arctic issues in 2021 — from perspectives ranging from those of the U.S. military and its partners to the cultural and economic. Here is the second installment in a series by The Watch that samples these academic insights.

Dr. Marc Lanteigne | Associate professor of political science, The Arctic University of Norway, Tromso (UiT)

Lanteigne was a panelist on “China and the Arctic: Great Power Competition, Security and Regional Responses,” an October 21 webinar hosted by the London School of Economics’ LSE Ideas series and UiT.

“When talking about China’s interests in the Arctic, especially as they pertain to potential security ramifications, it’s important to know right away two very inconvenient truths. First of all, China’s a newcomer to the Arctic. It is still trying … to understand many different aspects of Arctic life on the local level, on the subregional level. And this is a process which takes time. It’s not something that can be bought. It’s not something that can be rushed. And the second inconvenient truth is that China is not an Arctic state. And as such that China is very dependent on the goodwill of the Arctic states for much of its policies. [The eight Arctic states and members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States.]

“What China has been trying to do with its scientific prowess is to call for partnerships with Arctic states to better understand what exactly is happening [in regard to climate change] in this part of the world. … But at the same time, science diplomacy serves Chinese interests in regard to China wanting to be seen as a valuable partner for ongoing research in the region. … China has sent icebreakers to many parts of the Arctic for mapping missions. … And that has led to the question about what this data is going to be used for and whether this data is going to be transferred to military actors. I’d say that’s an extremely strong possibility.”

(Pictured: A small-boat crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley medevacs a man from the Chinese research vessel Xue Long, 15 nautical miles from Nome, Alaska, in 2017.)

Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv | Professor of critical peace and conflict studies, UiT

Hoogensen Gjørv was also a panelist on “China and the Arctic: Great Power Competition, Security and Regional Responses.”

“Where I would say that the Arctic is rather unique is the fact that the power dynamics are a bit different than globally. … You have so-called small states [Iceland and Denmark, for example] that are punching above their weight. That’s why I say ‘so-called small states’ — because it depends on the context, what kind of state power we’re actually talking about. And in that particular region you have a constellation of states that are rather unique, very wealthy … and just because of that, they have different options … that they may not otherwise have had if they were in different parts of the world.”

“China is … offering types of [economic and infrastructure] support. For example, for trains, for certain types of industrial production. … For Arctic communities, this is really important because a lot of these Arctic communities may be seeing changes in their own industrial capacities or their own capacities to really drive their economies. They need to look for alternatives, and it may not be coming from their southern governments because the governments of these communities are often located in the so-called south. So, China’s playing an interesting economic role, which also in turn can have a certain amount of influence in the Arctic.”

Christina Henriksen | President of the Saami Council

Henriksen, pictured, spoke on “Arctic Security and the Saami Council: Indigenous Perspectives and Interests” during a December 16 Arctic eTalk. The eTalks are a bimonthly virtual forum on key issues affecting the Arctic. The co-hosts include U.S. Northern Command and The Watch magazine. The Saami Council has a Permanent Participant status with the Arctic Council, together with five other Indigenous peoples organizations. According to the Arctic Council, more than 500,000 Indigenous peoples live in the Arctic — spanning three continents and seven countries.

“I would like to introduce you to my people. The Saami people are the nomadic Indigenous people of Europe and one of the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic. The Saami area is called ‘Sapmi’ in our language. Sapmi has been our home since time immemorial and spans from the middle of what you now know as Norway through Sweden and Finland and ends by the White Sea on the Kola Peninsula within the borders of the Russian Federation. Although the Saami are divided by the former borders of these four countries, we continue to exist as one people united by culture and linguistic bonds and a common identity. There are no exact numbers of how large the Saami population is, but an estimate of 100,000 is often used. We … have our own culture, language and traditions that are different from that of the majority population. Saami languages and cultures are, in fact, the oldest in the Nordic region — long predating the present-day national states.

“Activities such as reindeer herding, fishing, hunting and gathering remain important livelihoods for the Saami culture for our people. These traditional livelihoods are the foundation for Saami culture and … remain an important source for food, nutrition and culture. For all of us, that is also why environmental and climate-change issues are of such importance.”