Polar Reveries? The US Seeks a Strategic Return to the Arctic (and Antarctica)

[Photo via Pixabay]
by Marc Lanteigne

Last week, the United States government took another step in the development of a new security policy for the Arctic, (and for the Polar Regions as a whole), via a memorandum published by the White House issued to government agencies, including the Defence and State Departments. The statement called for an enhanced US strategic presence at both poles, including via the building of an icebreaker ‘fleet’ by 2029, and the opening of new bases. The directive further established that American policies in the Arctic would continue to reflect a downgrading of some vital areas of regional security, namely environmental security / climate change and human security and development, in favour of a hard military stance. As well, the statement also illustrated emerging US interests in countering the polar interests of great powers Russia and China, including concerns about a developing Arctic partnership between Beijing and Moscow.

(However, Sino-Russian Arctic relations may have taken a hit this week, in the wake of a confirmation that a St. Petersburg-based professor of Arctic Studies was arrested on suspicion of passing classified engineering information to China).

Should these new US Arctic plans move forward, (and that will be greatly dependent upon budgetary questions, given the current precarious status of the American economy), there will be a greater focus on the improving American ‘situational awareness’, (referring to knowledge of one’s surroundings, as well as the presence of obstacles and threats), in the Polar Regions. However, it remains to be seen whether this approach will effectively address the more multifaceted security issues facing the far north, or if it will offer an effective counter against the emerging policies of other great powers.

The memorandum’s first component included a call for plans to build new US icebreakers to be deployed in both the Arctic and Antarctic to serve ‘national interests’ in the Polar Regions. This study, to be submitted within the following sixty days, would optimally include ‘at least three heavy polar-class security cutters’, with an estimated cost of US$2.6 billion. Currently, the US has one active heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star, which was commissioned in 1976 for the country’s Coast Guard and is rapidly reaching the end of its operational lifespan.

In April 2019, a Mississippi-based firm, VT Halter Marine, (a subsidiary of Singapore Technologies Engineering), was awarded a US$746 million contract to build the first of the new icebreaking vessels, in order to address what Washington has long viewed as ‘icebreaker gap’. This is especially the case as compared with Russia, which has more than forty operational icebreaking ships, including nuclear powered vessels such as the planned Arktika (Арктика), which is expected to enter full operation next year after faults with an electric engine are addressed.

As for China, the country’s newest icebreaker, the Xuelong 2 (Snow Dragon 2 / 雪龙 2 ) is currently preparing for sea trials in the Arctic Ocean, and Beijing has initiated plans for its first nuclear powered icebreaking vessel, reportedly comparable to the Arktika model. Although China and Russia were not directly cited in the US government memorandum, there was a reference to the requirement to ‘evaluate defensive armament adequate to defend against threats by near-peer competitors and the potential for nuclear-powered propulsion’.

US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, January 2016 [Photo by US Coast Guard via Wikimedia Commons]
Until the new vessels are put to sea, the memorandum also advocated options to lease foreign vessels as a short-term measure. It was unclear which countries may be approached for this endeavour, but as a recent article in the High North News pointed out, a leased foreign icebreaker could run afoul of the United States’ own Jones Act of 1920, which stipulates that goods transported between two American ports must be on vessels which are built, operated and owned by American citizens or permanent residents. For decades, this Act has been a thorn in the side of outlying US territories, including Puerto Rico as well as the state of Alaska, because of the protectionist restrictions it places on non-American vessel activities.

A second component of the new memorandum was the announcement of four new polar bases to be established, with two on American soil and two outside of the US. It is assumed that Alaska would house one, if not both, of the domestic facilities, but the possible location of the foreign bases is an interesting question. It is probable that there would be one base in each hemisphere, but the selection of locations could be limited. In the north, another facility in Greenland is possible, given current US diplomatic overtures to Nuuk and concerns about the need for improved monitoring of Russian Arctic activities.

The American military has also resumed operations at Keflavík in south-western Iceland, after withdrawing from the country in 2006. Yet, a formal base in Iceland may run into considerable political opposition, given current unease in some Icelandic political quarters of the current status of US forces in the country. There may be a similar risk of a pushback in Canada over the potential placing of a base in that country’s vast Arctic territories due to current fragile relations between Ottawa and Washington, and the fact that the US has recently pressed its assertion that the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is international waters, despite Canadian policy declaring the passage is an internal waterway.

In the south, political complications may also eliminate some possibilities. Although military relations between New Zealand and the US improved with the signing of the 2010 Wellington Declaration, after security ties were downgraded due to bilateral frictions over NZ nuclear policies in the mid-1980s, there has yet to be full formal restoration of military relations under the 1951 ANZUS Treaty. Argentina could also be problematic, given brittle economic ties with the US in recent years, including over American tariff policies, and the closer Sino-Argentinian trade relationship, along with the opening in 2018 of a Chinese space monitoring facility in Neuquén State in the Patagonia region. Australia, which has been aligning towards Washington more closely of late, (albeit with some bumps), due to shared concerns about China’s global power, may be a more viable southern hemisphere choice.

Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Last week also saw the official reopening of the previously announced US consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, after the offices were closed in 1953. The new facilities, currently based in the same facilities as the Danish Joint Arctic Command in Nuuk, were described by statements from the US Embassy in Denmark and the State Department as another sign of improving relations with Greenland, and reflecting Washington’s commitment to improving the island’s economic growth and development. The resumption of American consular activities in Greenland comes at a time when the island has found itself at the centre of US strategic interests in the far north, starting with the failed 2019 attempt by Washington to ‘purchase’ Greenland and continuing with the recently-announced US$12.1 million investment proposal. Although American interests in Greenland are partially based on the country’s potential resource wealth and it’s location close to Russian Arctic waters, China, which has interests in three potential mining projects in Greenland, has also been a justification for the increase in American security thinking in the Arctic as a whole.

Since last year, Washington stepped up efforts, including through policy speeches and defence policy papers, to overtly criticise Chinese Arctic policies and to paint Beijing as an interloper in the region. In some cases, however, the American government narrative has begun to deviate from the actual data. For example, during testimony to the US Senate Committee on Armed Services in May this year, outgoing US Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, who has been named the United States’ next Secretary of the Navy, remarked [pdf] that ‘you would be alarmed at the amount of Chinese activity off the coast of Norway in the high north,’ without citing evidence or specific activities, and also implied that China had designs on a strategic foothold in northern Norway.

Those statements drew a response from Mr Audun Halvorsen, State Secretary of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said that Chinese activities in the Nordic-Arctic region remained ‘limited’ and that he did not view China as being a threat to NATO. As well, in another response to Ambassador Braithwaite’s testimony, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo suggested that statements like these could be interpreted as speaking over the heads of Northern Norwegians in regards to determining what are and are not emerging security challenges in the region.

As well, in a commentary [in Danish] published by US Ambassador to Copenhagen Carla Sands in the Danish news service Altinget last April, there was the erroneous assertion that China was referring to itself as ‘en arktisk stat’ (an Arctic state), despite the fact that said term has never been officially used by Beijing. For the past decade, academic and government policy papers in China have referred to the country as a ‘near-Arctic state’, (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家), a reference to geography as well as Beijing’s growing scientific and economic interests in the far north. China’s Ambassador to Denmark, Mr Feng Tie, later pointed out the mistake and also took issue with the US Ambassador’s reference to Chinese Arctic policy as being based on ‘predatory’ economic practices and projecting authoritarianism.

The inclusion of Antarctica in the US government memorandum is significant, especially since the South Pole has not factored into American strategic policy to the same degree as has the Arctic until recently. The statement took pains to stress that US activities in the region would be in accordance with the post-1959 Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), but there are signs that the US is beginning to question the longer-term security situation on the continent. The ATS specifically forbids military activity in Antarctica, and the Treaty System’s Protocol on Environmental Protection (a.k.a. the Madrid Protocol), which entered into force in 1998, disallows most forms of mineral extraction activity.

However, there is the question of whether these prohibitions will remain intact in the coming decades should great power competition accelerate, and the US may also be wishing to keep an eye on China’s activities in Antarctica as well. China is currently preparing a research base, its fifth on the continent, at Inexpressible Island in the Ross Sea region, with an anticipated opening in two years. When Beijing hosted the 2017 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in May of that year, the country released its first White Paper on Antarctica policy, which confirmed its interests in scientific endeavours and cooperation on the continent. Yet, concerns have been expressed in the United States, as well as Australia, that Beijing may now be in a better position to chip away at the laws governing economic activities on Antarctica.

As Liu Nengye, Associate Professor of International Law at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, commented to OtC, ‘I think it is evident that US-China competition in the Polar Regions is going to be intensified. While the pandemic is going on, amid China’s fast expansion in the Arctic and Antarctica, the Trump Administration made up its mind to seriously extend its competition with China into the Polar Regions.’ He added that, ‘on the other hand, it should not be too surprising because the Trump Administration has always been emphasising security interests, rather than economic and environmental interests, which requires cooperation, in the Poles.’

B-1B Lancer bombers from the US Air Force flying in formation with Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A fighters over Northern Norway, May 2020 [Photo via Forsvaret: Bodø QRA 331 Skvadron / Forsvaret, Royal Norwegian Air Force]
The memorandum, and its components, have sparked much comment and some criticism, including about the omission of security threats, including to local economies and livelihoods, caused by ice erosion and climate change in the Arctic, a process which the current US government continuously dismisses as without basis in fact. There is also the question as to whether icebreaking vessels can act as an effective policy to balance both Russian strategic activities in the region as well as Beijing’s multifaceted Arctic diplomacy. In an article published last week in the journal The Hill, recommendations were made to further bolster US interests in the Arctic. These included developing enhanced transportation infrastructure in Alaska, providing further support to the US National Oceanic and Administrative Association (NOAA), and improving local research and data-gathering mechanisms.

At present, however, the US government appears to be placing a much higher priority on hard security concerns in the region. Many recent events, including the October-November 2018 Trident Juncture NATO operations, ongoing US diplomacy in Greenland, the May 2019 joint US-UK naval manoeuvres in the Barents Sea, and this month’s joint flights over the Arctic Ocean by American and Norwegian military aircraft, have further underscored the rapid shift in US polices in the Arctic away from environmental concerns and towards great power competition.

How these moves will impact regional security, as well as American cooperation with the other Arctic states, is unclear, but in the medium term there may be a difficult political period in the far north, especially given that early next year will see the Chair of the Arctic Council passed from Iceland to Russia, (Moscow put forward a list of regional policy recommendations to the Council last week), as well as shorter-term questions about the region’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects. The evolution of Washington’s current Arctic policies may suggest an even greater policy chasm appearing between the United States and many other Arctic governments and stakeholders.