Skip Navigation

On Thin Ice? The Delicate Geopolitics of the Arctic and the South China Sea

Image via The Barents Observer

In a 2019 speech to the Arctic Council, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put forth an interesting conundrum: “China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic… Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” 

While Pompeo’s question was particularly blunt, his sentiment pervades discourse on US strategy in the Arctic. The US Coast Guard’s 2019 Strategic Outlook cited China’s “pattern of behavior” and “disregard for international law” in the South China Sea as indicative of its potential to infringe upon America’s Arctic access. These claims subsequently informed comprehensive and costly action steps to reinforce US security in the Arctic.

There are geopolitical parallels between the Arctic and the South China Sea, making it easy to wonder whether increased economic activity in the former could lead the region to become as hotly contested as the latter. Although this comparison might seem apparent, the two regions differ in several crucial ways. The Arctic is an incredibly cooperative region, especially in comparison to the South China Sea. The dynamics of military involvement, the forms of territorial disputes, and relative resource accessibility also differ between the two areas. The Arctic is thus unlikely to be the next South China Sea and should not be treated as such geopolitically. 

As climate change warms the Arctic, sea ice is rapidly melting, opening the region to exploration and exploitation that was previously impossible. Analyses of Arctic seabeds have found major reserves of oil and natural gas. Estimates show that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its untapped oil lie in the region—access to these oil and gas reserves would lead to immediate energy independence for any Arctic country. The Arctic is also rich in minerals, including iron ore, copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc phosphates, and diamonds. Many of these metals are necessary to develop the components of a green economy, from wind turbines to electric vehicle batteries. Arctic countries—Norway, Finland, Sweden, the United States, Russia, Denmark, Canada, and Iceland—as well as “near-Arctic” China, have begun expressing their ambitions to exploit these resources. 

The South China Sea is another geopolitically significant region, where multinational competition over access to resources, strategic positions, and trade routes has ballooned into a more overt, hostile conflict. Since the 1970s, China, Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, among other countries, have made competing claims over islands and zones in the South China Sea. As in the Arctic, significant untapped oil and gas reserves have been discovered in the South China Sea’s floor. The region also serves as a vital passage for maritime navigation. 

But beyond these general similarities, comparisons between the Arctic and the South China Sea are excessively simplistic. The Arctic’s main governing body is the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization consisting of eight member states (the eight Arctic countries) and thirteen observing states, including China, Germany, and India. Since the end of the Cold War, the Council has resolved disputes in the region by publishing agreements and establishing norms for environmental sustainability. The Council is consensus-based and relies on cooperation between all members. It has been applauded for its success as a forum for Arctic states and Native peoples to address shared concerns, relying on science, deliberation, and trust. The Arctic Council has even been uplifted as a model for other regions in need of cooperative governance solutions. 

The South China Sea, on the other hand, does not have a unified governance structure. Recent efforts to resolve territorial disputes have come from the intergovernmental Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN has 10 member states—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—and aims to be a cooperative platform for addressing regional economic and security issues. Although it has experienced some success in fostering the economic integration of its members, the Association has struggled to respond cohesively to China’s territorial claims. 

ASEAN’s slow-moving attempts to create a South China Sea Code of Conduct have granted China ample time to bolster its military presence and consolidate its operations in the contested waters—making the dynamics of military involvement in the South China Sea far different from in the Arctic. Although Russia and China have made assertions of their interests in the Arctic, they have both been relatively civil. In the South China Sea, conversely, China has established a much stronger military presence. Even as the Arctic warms up to increased activity, military concerns are less pressing. Canadian Inuit military leaders point to the unforgiving conditions of the Arctic and the general lack of preparedness of Arctic countries for polar conflict as reasons to doubt any outbreaks, at least in the short term. 

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries have jurisdiction over all living and nonliving resources within the 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off their coasts. Contested EEZs are central to the conflict in both the Arctic and South China Sea. However, the types of EEZ disputes are different between the two regions. Much of the Arctic’s natural gas reserves lie beyond the EEZ of any singular country. As a result, nations who desire the resources of the Arctic must try to expand these zones. Russia has made three attempts to expand its EEZ, first in 2001 and most recently in 2021, claiming that its continental shelf covers up to 70 percent of the Arctic. These proposals have not been approved by the UN, and Russia has yet to overstep its boundaries. 

China has successfully established a far more advantageous EEZ in the South China Sea, asserting its sovereignty over almost the entire waters. China’s nine-dash line, first mapped in 1946, extends its EEZ by over 1,000 kilometers in some places and cuts through the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. In 2016, the United Nations determined that the nine-dash line was baseless and that much of the region should be under the control of the Philippines. China has rejected the UN decision and continues to make exploitative advances. Should EEZ disputes arise in the Arctic, they will concern whether or not countries can expand into international waters rather than the overlap in existing EEZs. 

China has made efforts to establish itself in the Arctic, claiming to be a “near-Arctic” state and referring to the Arctic as the “Polar Silk Road.” In 2018, it published the Arctic Policy white paper outlining plans to become influential in the region. China’s motives for seeking such influence have explicitly concerned resource extraction and access to shipping routes. Despite these assertions, China has no territorial claims in the Arctic, as it does in the South China Sea. Connecting China’s current interests in the Arctic with future sovereignty claims is a stretch. 

The Arctic and the South China Sea further differ in the relative accessibility of their resources. Although the Arctic is becoming easier to exploit, extracting resources from the region is still extremely difficult. Harsh conditions and relative remoteness pose significant challenges to building the proper infrastructure for extraction. Moreover, this infrastructure would be expensive and difficult to execute at the scale necessary to render projects worthwhile. China, among other nations, has made technological advances with its nonpolar deep-sea mining equipment in recent years, making extraction projects in the South China Sea much more feasible than those in the Arctic. The Arctic also remains geographically isolated from major centers of global economic activity, which continue to gravitate toward Asia. 

Nonetheless, political failures in the South China Sea can serve as warnings of what can happen in a geopolitically desirable region. Although the Arctic Council has been successfully cooperative in the past, the war in Ukraine has shifted the relationship between Russia and other member nations, halting any meaningful advancement of the Council’s work. Since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, both Finland and Sweden have joined NATO, changing the Arctic dynamic from five NATO countries, two neutral countries, and Russia to seven NATO countries and a lonely Russia. Russian leaders have said that their attempts to expand the country’s EEZ further into the Arctic are designed not just to leverage untapped oil and gas resources but also to push back against “the expansion of NATO and the aggressive policy of the collective West towards Russia.” Further, in February 2024, Russia suspended its annual payments to the Council and announced that it might consider leaving the group. The fragile dynamics between members and their evolving motives have caused uncertainty about the Arctic Council’s authority—or lack thereof. Without the Council, Arctic relationships could start to deteriorate in ways that mirror those of states in the South China Sea. 

Arctic states should take this setback as an opportunity to reinforce their cooperative relationships and continue to develop agreements that promote a peaceful polar future. As the ice melts, Arctic states are likely to maintain their cooperative relations and continue to develop agreements that promote a peaceful future for the region.