China, Outer Space and the Arctic’s melting point

As a cold, dark, dangerous place, the Arctic is often compared to Outer Space. It is a remote, barren land, mostly unknown, and cannot even be reliably penetrated without the use of advanced technology. Funnily enough, the US State Department has a single lawyer dedicated to legal issues concerning both areas. We have discussed previously in this blog the liquid quality of both the Far North and Outer Space: a medium for exchange and interaction, more than colonization and competition.

This intimate relationship between both becomes even more apparent when realizing that any advances made in the Arctic depend on satellites: there is no Arctic if there is no Outer Space. Communications with the rest of the world, subsistence activities, reliable navigation, weather forecasting, climate monitoring, and environmental protection all require space-based technology, and this especially true in the Poles.

As of now, both the Arctic and Space are militarized but not weaponized areas. This means that there are military forces deployed there, but no weaponry is currently deployed there to threaten other powers. In the popular imagination, this calls back to the Cold War era, with images of radar dishes and nuclear warheads guaranteeing missile-based deterrence. In fact, the militarization of the region goes back a little bit further in time. In one of the few historical instances of US territorial invasion, a small Japanese contingent occupied the Aleutians in Alaska for about a year in 1943.

The Battle for the Aleutians was simultaneous to the more famous Battle of Guadalcanal, leading to the first being somewhat overshadowed by the latter. Nonetheless, it featured extremely ferocious fighting, harsh conditions and the only recorded banzai charge in American soil, heroically led, sword in hand, by Colonel Yasuyo Yamasaki. The Aleutians’ strategic value was due to their ability to control Pacific routes, something US General Billy Mitchell had already predicted in 1935: “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” The Soviets did not participate in any way in the battle, their attention being mostly focused on the Battle of Stalingrad, which was happening also at the same time.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, and probably due to the region’s hostility, the Arctic was conducive to a relative defrosting of Soviet-Western relations during the Cold War (pun absolutely intended). During one of the earliest cooperation efforts by both powers, in 1973, the US and the USSR, along with Norway, Denmark, and Canada, joined forces through the Polar Bear Treaty, which protected said animals from being indiscriminately hunted from aircraft. This cooperation came only a year after the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1972 Interim Agreement on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, both significant diplomatic inroads designed to limit nuclear proliferation. Successive agreements have been signed on this matter, with President Obama signing the third them with Vladimir Putin in 2010.

These small steps in cooperation were taken further in 1982, when the US and the USSR showed a united front in the negotiation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, addressing some territorial and environmental issues which also affected the Arctic. Collaboration in the Arctic outlasted the disintegration of the USSR, and in 1996 the Arctic Council was created, becoming the main instrument of governance in the polar regions. Nowadays, it is still mostly concerned with scientific endeavors and search and rescue operations, avoiding completely the topic of security. It includes all the countries with sovereignty in the Arctic: the US, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Russian-American cooperation in the Arctic survived unscathed the lowest points of mutual relations, including the 2014 Crimean Crisis (still ongoing to some extent). And the same happened with Space: until this year, the West still depended on the Russians and their Soyuz rockets to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. Cooperation kept going on steadfastly.

Not even aggressive Russian gas geopolitics have changed this reality. Nord Stream 2 is only another tool of Russian power. The US and its Central-Eastern European allies decry it, while Denmark, Finland, and Sweden welcome it. Seeing how its presence affects most Arctic and Baltic countries, it’s interesting how the project has not affected significantly cooperation efforts in the Polar regions among all involved.

How would the entry of a new player affect this equilibrium? Recently, China started to refer to itself as a “Near Arctic Country”; a generous descriptor, considering its northernmost city is at the latitude of Philadelphia. Just as it has been doing with Outer Space exploration, China has entered the Arctic in full force during the last few years. And by the way, guess who is not allowed to participate in the International Space Station?

The last China polemic is the purchase by mining giant Shandong of a Canadian gold mine in the Nunavut region. The fact has been examined as a possible security risk, especially after the diplomatic tensions between Canada and China related to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, of Huawei, on intellectual-property theft charges. China securing a legal and physical foothold in the Arctic would help it secure its control of gold, hydrocarbon and rare earth minerals in an area of increasing interest, sprinting ahead of its competitors.

Cooperation in the North Pole between major world powers has been steady and solid for decades. Substances, however, tend to modify their physical properties after undergoing a change in their chemical composition. Adding a new element will surely alter the delicate transpolar bonds. What was Trump’s stance on Russia? What is Biden’s stance on China? Is the melting point of the dark northern waves rising or lowering? We’ve said it before: the Arctic is melting fast, and it’s not only about the climate.

Cosmopolitics for the modern Leviathan

The space race has returned to public conscience. It is a symptom of the restructuring of the geopolitical arena brought about by the turn of the century. The future appearance of the new global system, however, is not entirely clear. Hand in hand with technological development and unprecedented population growth, Humanity has moved on from the mirage of a monopolar world. The years between the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016 have framed an apparent zenith of American power, and the rise of the challenge posed by the Middle Kingdom.

It is tempting to draw an analogy between the conquest of space and the European colonization of the New World across the centuries. Fiction, which is the crystallization of the collective unconscious into narratives, has made the space cowboy a recognizable type. The simile, undoubtedly of a great dramatic value, makes sense at face value: space, the last frontier, populated by asteroid miners, bounty hunters, and Native American-looking extraterrestrial civilization.

Lonesome cowboys make for good stories, as they are the actualization of the very ancient Knight Errand archetype found in Medieval tales. The historical main catalysts of Far West colonization, though, were big mining and railway corporations, which, in close collaboration to the government, incentivized the arrival of homesteaders as a way to obtain resources and allow continued operations. A good description of this relation between homesteader individualism and corporate-government collusion is found in the book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America, by Colin Woodard. Interestingly enough, space settling seems to have shifted towards a similar model of intense collaboration between private enterprises and the government, both in the US and abroad.

Nonetheless, space-steading colonies, for which the Space As Frontier narrative might make a good trope, still lay far ahead in the future. For now, Humanity is still in a phase of space exploration, and Age of Discoveries tropes might seem a more adequate frame for contemporary endeavors. The meme has been around for a while, as attested by President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 “new ocean” speech: “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people (…) only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” Is Space As Ocean, then, the previous exploratory stage to the exploitatory Space As Frontier, parallel to the way ocean exploration preceded land exploitation of America?

Ask any seasteading advocate, and they will answer that Space As Ocean can be not only a model for exploration, but also for settlement. It is no coincidence that both Outer Space and the sea are presented as ideal scenarios for techno-libertarian promises of Exit. After all, human habitats can and do exist in the Ocean: ships, oil platforms, artificial islands. Likewise, space can host stations, satellites, and even small bases on nearby planets. All of this infrastructure, due to the extreme hostility of the environment in which it is placed, is on some degree dependent on Earth for raw materials and basic living commodities. Any stable, self-sustaining presence in the water becomes, by definition, an incursion of Land into the Sea. To the continental geopolitical attributes of solidity, stability, and production, the Sea answers liquidity, transition and trade. Thus, water becomes geopolitically solid at the rate it transforms from explorable to exploitable.

The European powers that arrived to the New World looking for the East Indies were exploring uncharted oceans and territories of an unknown extension, in a race against their competitors. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ voyage, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, brokered by Pope Alexander VI. The deal included the drawing of a line along a meridian 370 leagues west of Cape Verde; newly discovered territories to the East of it would belong to Portugal, while those to the West would be for Spain. Among other things, the Treaty is significant because it was one of the first instances in which each side’s diplomats were formally supported by a cabinet of technical advisors: geographers, philosophers and jurists. It was also an immense bet: both sides had almost no prior knowledge of the area they were distributing among themselves. Columbus’s travels only touched the South American coast by 1498. The first maps identifying it as a new continent different from Asia appeared around 1507, and the existence of the Pacific Ocean was completely ignored until Núñez de Balboa took possession of it for the Catholic Monarchs in 1513. Such gambles are unfathomable in the context of space exploration.

Modern space powers’ competition is for an immense emptiness and for the objects, more or less already known and well described, contained therein: fundamentally the Moon, Mars, and several hundred asteroids of expected mining value. Although the hidden face of the Moon is almost unknown to us, we know that there is something there; the conquerors of America had no clue about how far the continent reached when they first landed. Celestial bodies outside the Solar System are technologically unreachable, so dispute of their resources can only be speculative, in the same way the Treaty of Tordesillas was. Or, in other words, they do not exist in a geopolitical sense as of yet.

Historically, the formulation of classical geopolitics only appeared when mapping of all the globe’s seas and oceans was complete. The theories of Halford John Mackinder were formulated in the context of the Asian Great Game, which pitted the British Sea Empire against the Russian Land Empire. Figures like Alfred Thayer Mahan, and later Nicholas J. Spykman (the “godfather of containment”), transformed Mackinder’s ideas into American foreign policy doctrine, and were instrumental to the US’s rise to world power status. Naval power was the key to military influence on the continent, and diplomacy was designed to dissolve consolidation efforts on the ground by fostering balance-of-power systems. The waves always move towards the coast: the Sea is not an Exit strategy, but an Entry point.

Public and private space enterprises are well aware of the difference between potential and actual resources, and consequently direct most of their prospective efforts to attainable objects in space. Scientific curiosity may be boundless, but the geopolitical will directing and financing it is essentially competing for a “closed”, relatively well known portion of space. This portion of space is a connective compartment of Earth, the limits of which are determined by current navigability. Geopolitically, Outer Space is not the speculative, theoretical and uncharted Atlantic ocean of Columbus and Magellan. It is a liquid and navigable Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea which Roman, Aragonese and Venetian thalassocracies used for communication, commerce and warfare.

In real world practice, this translates to the fact that almost all of the technological efforts of the current space race have been devoted to creating satellite constellations with geolocation, surveillance and telecommunications functions, all directed towards the ground. Both the hard and soft power of modern leviathans depends intimately on space technology for meteorology, maritime navigation, command and control of military units, surveillance networks, and dissemination of propaganda. Thus, contemporary space powers must be seen as the maritime powers of classical geopolitics taken to the third, vertical dimension of cosmopolitics. They are entities that exploit their dominance of a liminal common space –the sea/extraterrestrial space– to project their shadow on a continental Hinterland/Earth. Space is not the last frontier to be settled and tamed. It is a body of water which, precisely because of its lack of borders, can be expanded – or better, penetratedinfinitely.

Cosmopolitics arrives with the realization of the liminal and ever-expanding nature of Outer Space. As Humanity gains the ability to navigate it further and further in, it transitions from a theoretical space to a liquid, connective shell encompassing Earth. The development of Space Power is not a centrifugal vector of Exit, but a tool meant to act centripetally and exert power on the ground.

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