The United States’ Hardening Stance on Arctic Security

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.

[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.

‘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.


On the Air: ‘China’s Arctic Ambitions’

[Photo via Pixabay]
China’s expanding Arctic strategies were the main topic of discussion on the 3 May edition of the BBC World Service’s news radio programme The Real Story. Marc Lanteigne, editor of OtC (and Associate Professor at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway), joined other Arctic policy researchers from around the region in debating China’s Arctic interests on the eve of this month’s Arctic Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland.

The other participants in the debate were Annika Nilsson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), Wenran Jiang (University of British Columbia, Canada), Rebecca Pincus (US Naval War College) along with interviews with other Arctic specialists including former Greenlandic finance minister Pele Broberg. The discussion points ran the gamut from the political and economic conditions in the Arctic as a result of climate change, as well as China’s specific interests in shipping and resource development, to how Beijing has perceived international law in the region, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Polar Code.

China’s Arctic AmbitionsThe Real Story – BBC World Service
3 May 2019, (53 minutes). 


Russia Reinforces its Arctic Policies (With China Alongside)

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
For almost two decades, the Russian government sought to redevelop its Arctic regions after a long period of neglect, not only recognising the growing economic importance of Russia’s northernmost lands but also due to concerns about other regional powers seeking to enhance their own presence in the Arctic Ocean. Much international attention has been placed on the ongoing policies of the Vladimir Putin government to re-open cold war era military bases and establish new installations, with the ‘Northern Clover’ (Северный клевер) installation on Siberia’s Kotelny Island / Остров Котельный and the larger and flashier ‘Arctic Trefoil’ (Арктический трилистник) base at Alexandra Land / Земля Александры, in the Franz Josef Land region of Siberia.

These endeavours not only recognise the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, in Moscow`s view, but also the potential for the Russian Arctic to become a secondary maritime trade route connecting Asia with Northern Europe. As well there exists  and the possibility of great power competition emerging in the region as tepid diplomatic relations between Russia and the West show few signs of improvement. However, the rebuilding of the military infrastructure along Russia’s Arctic coastlines is but one element of Moscow’s new thinking on the region, and many other components of Russian Arctic policy are beginning to include its big neighbour to the southeast, China.

Signs of a deepening in Russian Arctic policies, including in regards to the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic Ocean, were abundant at the recently concluded International Arctic Forum in St Petersburg, the fifth such meeting Russia has held to highlight its government’s regional interests. During the event, numerous business agreements were signed with an eye towards Siberian economic development, including in the areas of energy, education and cultural exchanges, mining, land transportation and shipbuilding. The conference reportedly hosted more than 3600 representatives from Russian and international interests, as well as the leaders of four Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden).

These announcements follow the release of a five-year plan detailed [In Russian] by the Russian government in December of last year to support, along with private industries, development projects worth upwards of 5.5 trillion roubles (US$86 billion) on energy, resources and infrastructure in the Russian Arctic until 2025. There is also an ambitious call, as part of the ‘May Decrees’ (майские указы) issued by President Putin last year, to bolster Russian shipping via the NSR to eighty million tonnes, (up from approximately eighteen million tonnes in 2018), by 2024, a goal which will require an expansion of Russia’s already significant icebreaker program. However, at the Russian Arctic conference, Aleksey Likhachev, head of the Russian nuclear power firm Rosatom (Росатом), made a more audacious claim that NSR shipping could actually grow to 92.6 million tonnes in five years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the International Arctic Forum in St Petersburg [Photo by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv]
In his remarks at the St Petersburg event, President Putin suggested that by 2035, Russia would have an icebreaker fleet featuring thirteen heavy icebreakers, including nine nuclear powered icebreaking ships, and upgraded ports on either side of the NSR, specifically in Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula bordering Norway and Finland, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia’s Far East; (this week, France’s energy firm Total announced that it was interested in investing as much as ten percent into the development of the two ports).

Other new Arctic policies which the Putin government identified since the beginning of this year included new regulations [In Russian] for foreign vessels seeking to use the NSR for cargo transits. These include the stipulations that foreign ships give Moscow at least forty-five days notice before commencing an NSR transit, with the specifics of the vessel, including size, weight and engine type, submitted to Russian authorities in advance, with a Russian maritime pilot to be stationed on the vessel in question. The argument made by the Russian government is that such measures were necessary both due to environmental concerns and the growing numbers of vessels seeking to use the NSR, leading to questions about ensuring maritime safety.

However, these rules provoked strong criticism from the United States, which has traditionally viewed [pdf] the NSR as an international waterway and not as historical waters as claimed by Russia and the Soviet Union before it. As one US editorial argued, Washington should not allow the Arctic Ocean to become Russia’s ‘frigid Caribbean’, and suggested that the restrictions on NSR use were inconsistent with international law regarding the right of innocent passage [pdf]. In February this year, a US Admiral went further with his criticism of Moscow’s proposed NSR rules by stating that the Arctic was ‘nobody’s lake’. Russia has also continued to promote its argument for jurisdiction over the Lomonosov Ridge in the central Arctic Ocean, which if accepted by the United Nations would result in the legal extension of the Russian continental shelf into the waterway.

The US has also recently expressed concerns about the emerging linkages between Russia and China in the Arctic, especially as the region has now been officially incorporated into China’s Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) initiative, representing the ‘northern tier’ of China’s expanding network of maritime ‘Silk Road’ trading routes. China was well-represented at the St Petersburg meeting, and one major announcement to come out of the event involving Beijing was the creation of a China-Russia Arctic Research Centre (E Zhong beiji yanjiu zhongxin 俄中北极研究中心 / Китайско-Российского Арктического Научно-Исследовательского Центра).

This new Arctic research hub was the result of an agreement [In Russian] signed by representatives of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences’ Shirshov Institute for Ocean Studies and China’s National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology in Qingdao. Plans include the establishment of a joint study plan [In Chinese] for regional scientific research areas, including climate change issues, by next year. China has a similar research agreement with the Northern European Arctic states, namely the China-Nordic Arctic Research Centre (CNARC), founded in 2013.

Russia’s ‘Arctic Trefoil’ base, Franz Josef Land [Photo via / Wikipedia]
This week, Russia’s ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, was upbeat about the growing number of opportunities for Sino-Russian Arctic cooperation, noting in an interview with the South China Morning Post that Chinese financial support was essential for many of Moscow’s Arctic infrastructure plans. The ambassador also stated that negotiations between the two governments on the specifics of the Power of Siberia 2 (Сила Сибири 2) project which, if successful, would see a new route created for Siberian natural gas shipments to China, were proceeding well. In addition to Beijing’s investment capabilities in the Arctic, Chinese technology in the areas of energy extraction and unmanned transport also make the country an attractive partner for developing Russian Arctic interests, as one regional expert recently noted.

The prospect of closer cooperation between Beijing in Moscow in Arctic affairs has further rattled foreign policymakers in Washington, and it was suggested that this partnership may factor heavily into an upcoming Arctic policy statement being prepared by the Donald Trump administration. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted he may attend next month’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi as a response to growing Chinese visibility in the Arctic. American concerns over a potential Sino-Russian ‘duumvirate’ in the Arctic, however, also reflect Washington’s own anaemic policies in the region.

Other than an agreement to build a new icebreaker, at a cost of an estimated US$925 million or more, for the US Coast Guard, the only other Arctic policy of note which emerged from the Trump government was an attempt to overturn a ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, implemented by President Barack Obama. A ruling from an Alaskan court in March of this year, stating that the move was unlawful and an overreach of presidential authority, effectively stymied Trump’s plans.

Although Russia remains sensitive about its Arctic sovereignty, especially as the region assumes a greater priority in the Putin government’s strategic calculations, agreements with China in Arctic development projects are likely to increase as Beijing views the Arctic as a rising strategic priority and Russian relations with the West continue to be strained.




A look at Arctic news from around the region.

The Arctic has Entered an “Unprecedented State,” Researchers Warn,’ [World Economic Forum]

At the Edge of the Ice: Deep inside the Arctic Circle, Inuit Hunters Embrace Modern Technology but Preserve a Traditional Way of Life,’ [Smithsonian]

Costs and Reality of Reforming the Arctic Council,’ [The Arctic Institute]

How Permafrost Scientists Discovered Yukon Summers are Hottest in Nearly 14,000 Years,’ [CBC News North]

Canadian Arctic Report Urges Stronger Ties with NATO, Indigenous Communities, but Weak on Science, say Experts,’ [Eye on the Arctic]

Iceland is a Bitcoin Miner’s Haven, but Not Everyone is Happy,’ [Al-Jazeera]


New Article: China’s Emerging Strategies in the Arctic

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
A new article by Marc Lanteigne, editor at OtC, has been published this week by the online journal High North News, which looks at the growing strategic dimension of China’s Arctic policies in the wake of the country’s first governmental White Paper on the region which was released in January last year.

The paper argues that despite Beijing having to play a great deal of catch-up in developing its Arctic diplomacy, especially at a time when the region is assuming a higher place on the agendas of many non-Arctic states, China has quickly established a strong political, economic and scientific presence in the region, via a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements with Arctic governments. As well, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which was initially not expected to make much of an impact in the Arctic, has now firmly established itself in the region in several ways.

Snow Fort or Ice Path? China’s Emerging Strategies in the Arctic,’ High North News, 19 April 2019.