China Enters the Arctic Digitization Race
Moscow is not alone in eying the potential of the Arctic’s digital silk roads. In 2018, China flagged its global interest in the Arctic region as a key facet of its Belt and Road Initiative—with the High North featuring as the Polar Silk Road.
By Dr. Maria Shagina & Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan
January 18, 2021
In our global information age, connectivity plays a central role. The geopolitics of connectivity is increasingly garnering attention, presenting various challenges and opportunities. Unfolding in real-time is a new great game of sorts: the digitalization of the Arctic. Stakeholders range from public to private enterprises and include autocratic and democratic governments. The “prize” is control over the flow of information within the Arctic, which affords both political and economic windfalls. Of course, restricting access to information is a well-known playbook of states like China, North Korea and Iran. After all, information is power.
Economically, digitalization directly improves living standards, an important precursor to socio-economic development. Indeed, the key economic drawcard for digitalization in the Arctic is the geographic reality that the region is the shortest distance connecting Europe to Asia. In tech-speak, this means data fiber-cables are shorter which translates to optimal latency. Latency, the holy grail of digital communication, is essentially the “delay” in which information moves between origin and destination. The global financial system is merely one key sector that has its eye on the prime latency which Arctic digital avenues provide.
Traditional security challenges like great-power politics, resource politics, and the contemporary climate change threat, are the usual headlines of Arctic security coverage. We outline Russia’s digitization strategy and argue, in the Arctic context, the geopolitics of connectivity is somewhat overlooked. The Arctic’s digital transformation matters, as global connectivity becomes increasingly weaponized.
Digitalization, With Russian Characteristics
Russia’s new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, has a tech-savvy reputation. Indeed, since assuming the prime ministership in 2020, Mishustin has sought to elevate digitalization on Moscow’s policy agenda. The urgency of developing Russia’s digital footprint has been underscored by the global coronavirus pandemic, which gave an impetus to accelerate digital transformation across Russia. An increased demand for online services, e-commerce and technological solutions as a result of enforced lockdowns and the pandemic’s “new normal” has forced Mishustin’s government to double-down on its digitalization agenda. This has become a national development goal, and the Russian Arctic is one key theatre in which Russia is accelerating its digital transformation.
Russia’s digitalization of the Arctic has emerged as a cross-cutting solution serving a number of purposes. Of course, digitalization is expected to mitigate several threats as identified in Russia’s latest Arctic strategy to 2035. First, Moscow sees digitalization as the central way in which to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Russian Arctic region. The Russian Arctic zone is deprived of adequate telecommunications infrastructure, making living conditions particularly harsh. The region suffers from a digital divide, as the villages of eastern Russian Arctic regions are not connected to the internet. The pandemic has only underscored the importance of telecommunications infrastructure in providing primary health care to these remote indigenous communities, including telemedicine. Of course, their military bases and energy extraction sites are afforded access. This digital isolation has contributed to the demographic challenges viewed by Moscow as one of the major threats to its Arctic development. By improving digital connectivity, the Russian state hopes to halt out-migration from the region, deliver on the promise to guarantee high living standards, and, ultimately, attract more settlers to the Russian High North. The labor-intensive energy sectors of the Arctic require adequate manpower well into the foreseeable future.