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

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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The Arctic is warming at twice the pace of the rest of the planet, opening up long-frozen sea lanes to commercial traffic. (AFP)
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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Russian warships at the Arctic base of Severomorsk. The changing geography of the Arctic increases the risk of confrontation between the major powers. (AFP)
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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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)
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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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)
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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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)
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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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 

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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Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria
Updated 04 August 2021

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria

Germany detains man for grenade attack on civilians in Syria
  • At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured

BERLIN: German police have detained a Syrian man accused of war crimes for firing a rocket-propelled grenade into a group of civilians in Damascus in 2014, officials said Wednesday.

The suspect, identified only as Mouafak Al D. in line with German privacy laws, was detained in Berlin on Wednesday.

German federal prosecutors said he is suspected of firing an RPG at a group of people lining up for food aid in the Yarmouk district of Damascus, home to a large population of Palestinian refugees.

At least seven people were killed in the attack and three were injured, including a 6-year-old child.

The suspect is alleged to have been a member of the Free Palestine Movement, and previously of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. Between July 2013 and April 2015 the groups exerted control of the Yarmouk refugee camp on behalf of the Syrian government.

Prosecutors said that in addition to war crimes, the suspect faces being charged with seven counts of murder and three counts of serious bodily harm.

A federal judge is expected to determine Wednesday whether the man shall remain under arrest for the duration of the pre-trial investigation.


Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman

Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman
Updated 04 August 2021

Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman

Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman

KABUL: Taliban claim Kabul attack targeting defence minister: insurgent spokesman


Malaysian PM Muhyiddin Yassin refuses to resign, delays vote by a month

Malaysian PM Muhyiddin Yassin refuses to resign, delays vote by a month
Updated 04 August 2021

Malaysian PM Muhyiddin Yassin refuses to resign, delays vote by a month

Malaysian PM Muhyiddin Yassin refuses to resign, delays vote by a month
  • Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the collapse of the former reformist government that won 2018 elections

KUALA LUMPUR: Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin refused to resign Wednesday after a key ally pulled support for him, but said he will seek a vote of confidence in Parliament next month to prove his legitimacy to govern.
Shortly after a meeting with King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah at the palace, Muhyiddin said in a national broadcast that he had been informed by the monarch that eight lawmakers from a key party in his ruling alliance had withdrawn support for him.
The party, the United Malays National Organization, is the largest in the alliance with 38 lawmakers, but it is split with some not backing the premier. UMNO’s president declared Tuesday that Muhyiddin had lost the right to govern with the withdrawal of support from some party lawmakers and after an UMNO minister resigned.
Muhyiddin said he told the king that he has received sufficient declarations of support from lawmakers that “convinced me that I still have the majority support” in Parliament. He didn’t give any numbers.
“Therefore, the issue of my resignation ... doesn’t arise,” he said.
Muhyiddin took power in March 2020 after initiating the collapse of the former reformist government that won 2018 elections. His party joined hands with UMNO and several others to form a new government but with a razor-thin majority.
But since January he had been ruling by ordinance without legislative approval thanks the suspension of Parliament in a state of emergency declared because of the pandemic. Critics say he was using the emergency, which expired Aug. 1, to avoid a vote in Parliament that would show he had lost a majority of support.
Because of persistent questions over his legitimacy, Muhyiddin said Wednesday that a motion of vote of confidence in his leadership will be tabled for a vote when Parliament resumes next month.
“In this way, my position as prime minister and the Alliance National as the ruling government can be determined in accordance with the law and the constitution,” he said.
His government has been seeking to avoid a vote ever since the state of emergency expired, and a five-day session of Parliament last week in which no motions were allowed was suspended after virus cases were found among staff members. Parliament is next due to sit in September.


Families flee as Afghan army battles Taliban for control of besieged city

Families flee as Afghan army battles Taliban for control of besieged city
Updated 04 August 2021

Families flee as Afghan army battles Taliban for control of besieged city

Families flee as Afghan army battles Taliban for control of besieged city
  • ‘There is no way to escape from the area because the fighting is ongoing’
  • The Taliban has taken control of vast swathes of the countryside and key border towns

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Families fled their homes as the Afghan army launched a major counterattack against the Taliban in the southern city of Lashkar Gah, residents said Wednesday.
Dozens of civilians have already died in the intense battle for Lashkar Gah, a city of 200,000 people that would be the Taliban’s biggest prize since they launched a nationwide offensive in May.
Resident Saleh Mohammad said hundreds of families had fled after the military asked people to leave on Tuesday, but many were stuck in the crossfire.
“There is no way to escape from the area because the fighting is ongoing. There is no guarantee that we will not be killed on the way,” Mohammad said.
“The government and the Taliban are destroying us.”
The insurgents have taken control of vast swathes of the countryside and key border towns, taking advantage of the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of US forces.
The Taliban are now targeting cities, with fierce fighting for a week around Herat near the western border with Iran, as well as Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the south.
The capital Kabul was also rocked by deadly bomb-and-gun attacks on Tuesday targeting Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi and other politicians.
Mohammadi was safe and Afghan forces repelled the attacks, but five people were killed.
No group has yet claimed the Kabul attack, but Washington pointed the finger at the Taliban.
The early morning fighting in Lashkar Gah followed another night of heavy clashes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces in the city, just hours after the military gave an evacuation order for residents.
“Those families which had financial support or a car have left their homes. The families who can not afford to are obliged to stay in their own homes as we are,” resident Halim Karimi said.
“We don’t know where to go or how to leave. We are born to die.”
The loss of Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, would be a massive strategic and psychological blow for the government.
With the Taliban taking control of some radio and TV stations in the city, and moving into people’s homes, the Afghan army on Tuesday flagged a major counter-offensive.
“Please leave as soon as possible so that we can start our operation,” General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, said in a message to the city’s population.
“I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses — it is hard for us too — but if you are displaced for a few days, please forgive us.
The United Nations reported Tuesday that at least 40 civilians had been killed in Lashkar Gah in the previous 24 hours.
In Kabul on Tuesday night, the first bomb blew up in the center of the city late Tuesday, sending a thick plume of smoke into the sky, AFP correspondents reported.
Defense Minister Mohammadi said it was a suicide car bomb attack targeting his house.
Less than two hours after the car bomb detonated, another loud blast followed by smaller explosions and rapid gunfire, also near the high-security Green Zone that houses several embassies, including the US mission.
A security source said several attackers had stormed a lawmaker’s house after setting off the car bomb and shot at the residence of the defense minister from there.
“Several lawmakers were meeting at the house of this MP to make a plan to counter the Taliban offensive in the north,” the source said.


China mass testing shows coronavirus cases at six-month high

China mass testing shows coronavirus cases at six-month high
Updated 04 August 2021

China mass testing shows coronavirus cases at six-month high

China mass testing shows coronavirus cases at six-month high
  • Health authorities reported 71 domestic cases on Wednesday, the highest since January
  • Long lines of residents waited at outdoor testing stations in the summer heat

BEIJING: China on Wednesday reported its highest daily number of local coronavirus cases in months as mass testing and contact tracing campaigns uncovered a trail of Delta variant infections.
Health authorities reported 71 domestic cases on Wednesday, the highest since January, as China battles its largest outbreak in months by testing entire cities and locking down millions.
The official results of those tests have revealed a low caseload despite the outbreak spreading to dozens of major cities.
Beijing had previously boasted of its success in crushing COVID-19, allowing the economy to rebound and normal life to return while swathes of the globe struggled to douse a pandemic that has killed more than four million people worldwide.
But the latest outbreak is threatening that record with nearly 500 domestic cases reported since mid-July, when a cluster among airport cleaners in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, was found.
Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in 2019, reported its first local infections in over a year this week and said Tuesday it was “swiftly launching” testing of all 11 million residents.
Long lines of residents waited at outdoor testing stations in the summer heat Tuesday, fanning themselves with paper forms while workers in hazmat suits took throat samples.
Meanwhile, Nanjing has tested its 9.2 million residents three times after shutting down gyms and cinemas and closing off residential compounds.
And the tourist destination of Zhangjiajie in central Hunan province, where infected travelers who had been in Nanjing attended a theater performance, abruptly announced Tuesday that no one would be allowed to exit the city after it emerged as an infection hotspot.