The United States’ Hardening Stance on Arctic Security

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Washington DC [Photo via Pixabay]
In the weeks before this month’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, one of the ‘Arctic Eight’ members of the organisation endeavoured to highlight its strategic concerns in the circumpolar north, releasing a series of strong signals that this member government was seeking to develop a more overt ‘hard security’ approach to the Arctic in light of the region’s changed political and economic circumstances. This is not a reference to Russia, but rather to the United States.

Two major US governmental policy papers have been released in recent weeks which have detailed American concerns about the challenges posed in the Arctic by competing powers, Russia and China, as well as the need to clarify the role of the Arctic to US strategic interests. The first document [pdf], published by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in April this year, outlined weaknesses in the USCG’s capabilities in the Arctic, including in the areas of operations and communications, at a time when the region is gaining more international attention.

As well, the paper called for a strengthening of rules and norms in the Arctic, as well as greater cooperation with local Arctic communities and other regional governments. The USCG capabilities in the Arctic stood to be strengthened with the confirmation that the long-delayed construction of a new icebreaker to supplement the US’ small and aging cohort would shortly commence. It was announced in April this year that VT Halter Marine, an American firm owned by Singapore Technologies Engineering, would be granted a contract worth US$1.9 billion to build new icebreakers.

Unlike in the previous USCG report on the Arctic, published [pdf] in 2013 under the Barack Obama administration, there was no mention of climate change in this paper, reflecting the ongoing denial of the Donald Trump government that the phenomenon exists, (despite ever-increasing amounts of data which says otherwise), and so the report delicately stepped around the issue, using phrases such as ‘dramatic changes in the physical environment of the Arctic’ and ‘reduced ice conditions’.

Last week, the Washington Post reported the widening gap between the US and the other Arctic Council members on the subject of climate change was hampering attempts to complete the final policy document to be released at the Council’s Rovaniemi meeting, with the news service saying the Trump government was pushing to excise any mention of climate change from the statement, leading to some frustration being expressed by other delegations.

Another major difference in the 2019 USCG Arctic report in comparison with its predecessor is the expanded coverage of China’s developing interests in the Arctic. Despite growing Russian interests in developing its own Arctic strategic assets in recent years, the Coast Guard document strongly emphasized China as a main emerging strategic competitor in the region. Pointing to China’s 2013 admission to the Arctic Council as an observer, references in China to the country being a ‘near-Arctic state’, the launch of its second conventional icebreaker and its interests in building one with a nuclear-powered engine, and the inclusion of the Arctic into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the report suggested China may seek to ‘impede US access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic’ in a similar fashion as with the South China Sea region.

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[Photo via Pixabay]
Connecting the issue of Arctic Ocean to that of the South China Sea (SCS) in attempting to discern patterns within Beijing’s maritime strategies is problematic at best, given the fact that despite Beijing’s interests in both the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea, the similarities in legal and political conditions are few. China has claimed approximately eighty percent of the SCS via the policy that the waterway represents Chinese ‘historical waters’, (a nebulous term, at best, from an international law standpoint), as well as sovereignty over the islands in reefs in the region, with the Paracel and Spratly Islands being the most prominent. However, several other regional governments, including the Philippines and Vietnam, have claimed some or all of the disputed features in the SCS, and the United States has maintained that the sea is international waters, a policy Beijing has interpreted as overt containment. Thus, the main issue in this dispute has not been about rejection of international law, but rather strongly differing interpretations of it in the case of South China Sea sovereignty.

Such differences are wholly absent in the case of the Arctic, given that China has no land or maritime borders there, and is therefore greatly dependent upon Arctic governments, especially Moscow, for its political and economic policies in the region. China’s Arctic White Paper published in January 2018 took great pains to draw a distinction between territorial rights which the document stated non-Arctic states do not have, and the rights to scientific and economic activities, which non-Arctic countries, in Beijing’s view, do have with respect to international law such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) [pdf].

On a related note, a recent article in the distinguished Arctic affairs blog Cryopolitics explained, the United States is also exceedingly unprepared for the eventual opening of the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) to shipping as the waterway becomes increasingly ice-free in the coming decades, due to climate change. China, by contrast, has recognised including in the 2018 White Paper, the eventual emergence of an Arctic ‘Central Passage’ (beiji de zhongyang tongdao 北极的中央通道) over the North Pole.

Growing US anxiety about the role of non-Arctic states in the region was also illustrated in a recent Reuters report, which quoted an unnamed American official who stated that non-Arctic states should have no role to play in Arctic governance, (although there were no specifics as to what was meant by ‘governance’ in this context). The official added there was ‘no such definition’ of China’s concept of ‘near-Arctic state’ in the lexicon of the Arctic Council.

The idea that all aspects of Arctic governance should be completely closed to non-Arctic actors is unlikely to attract a great deal of support in the region, both since several other Arctic Council members, namely Russia but also Nordic states like Finland and Iceland, have been comparatively more supportive of Chinese economic engagement of the Arctic, (including via the BRI), and because several other non-Arctic countries besides China have developed robust Arctic policies and routinely engage in political discourse, including with the Arctic Eight, on the affairs of the region. This list includes Japan, Singapore, South Korea and several European states such as France, Germany, Italy and Poland; (the United Kingdom, which has also begun to pay closer attention to the far north in recent years, referred to itself as ‘the Arctic’s nearest neighbour’ [pdf] in previous policy statements, presumably with fewer complaints from Washington).

The second US governmental policy document recently released with Arctic policy importance was the Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019, which included a section on the Arctic and Chinese activities there as well. The document [pdf] noted China’s scientific interests in the region, including its icebreaker programme and its research stations in Norway (Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard) and Iceland (Kárhóll), and further (considerably) extrapolated that China’s civilian research interests could ‘support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.’

Greenland was also singled out as a potential trouble spot in the report, which noted Denmark’s previous concerns about Chinese investment as well as earlier endeavours by Chinese interests to build a tracking station and a research base in Greenland, (both projects are currently on hold), investing in airport refurbishment, (the bid by a Chinese company was nullified after the Danish government agreed to provide financial support for the project by the end of 2018), and to invest in Greenlandic mining projects, (none of which are currently in operation).

In addition to the two documents, the Trump government also announced in March that it was seeking to draft a wider Arctic defence strategy, again with China as a focal point, with cooperation of the US Department of Defence and the National Security Council. It was also reported in Arctic Today that the US Navy (USN) had also drawn up a short strategic paper of its own on the Arctic in January 2019, but that document has so far not been released to the public. It had been recently confirmed [paywall] by the US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer that the USN would be partnering with the Marine Corps to expand operations in the Arctic this coming summer, including freedom of navigation exercises (FONOPs) in the Arctic Ocean, including through the Northwest Passage in northern Canada, as well as developing new facilities in Alaska.

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‘Ceci n’est pas une crise?’ Eroding permafrost at Kaktovik, northern Alaska [Photo by Shawn Harrison, USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, via the United States Geological Survey]
It is also likely that US concerns about China’s role in the Arctic will be a topic of conversation when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends next week’s Rovaniemi meeting, as well as when Mr Pompeo stops in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk to speak with Premier Kim Kielsen along with Greenland’s foreign minister, Ane Lone Bagger, and her opposite number in Copenhagen, Anders Samuelsen, following the Arctic Council event.

Despite ongoing attempts by the Arctic Council to promote other pressing issues in the region, including environmental policies and economic development, it is becoming apparent that security issues are starting to assume a much more prominent position in the organisation’s agenda, with the US potentially leading that process.