October 24, 2019

US Policy Towards the Arctic: Adapting to a Changing Environment

A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft, assigned to the Black Knights of Strike Fighter Squadron 154, launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2019 May 13, 2019 in the Gulf of Alaska.
A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft, assigned to the Black Knights of Strike Fighter Squadron 154, launches from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during Exercise Northern Edge 2019 May 13, 2019 in the Gulf of Alaska.

Regardless of the reasons for US president Donald Trump’s mercurial cancellation of his planned state visit to Denmark earlier this year—whether due to the Danish refusal to sell Greenland to the United States or his wariness of another lengthy foreign trip—his interest in expanding the US presence in the Arctic is understandable.

The United States has important strategic interests in the area, especially if one considers the Russian and growing Chinese presence in the region. Yet neither the US nor NATO has been sufficiently active in the Arctic given its rising importance.

The Arctic region encompasses the seas and land north of latitude 66.33° N. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest of the world’s oceans but is transforming due to its melting ice. Eight countries possess territories there: Canada, Denmark (through possession of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US. They have often cooperated well in the past, but developments such as shrinking ice flows are challenging old patterns of behaviour and collaborative norms. In particular, the melting polar ice allows easier access to mineral resources and opens previously frozen maritime sea routes. The Arctic’s year-round sea ice is melting at a faster rate than in recorded history. The melting could adversely impact regional societies and infrastructure. The conflict between Moscow and the West is spilling over into the Arctic, as are economic tensions between China and Western countries. Some worry about a great-power scramble for control of the region, in the way leading world powers struggled for control over Africa in the 19th century. Today, there is no consensus regarding what Arctic resources can be developed, under what conditions, and by whom.

Though hydrocarbons are plentiful in the Arctic, the extraction costs could be enormous, due to the high costs of drilling as well as environmental and safety protection. Climate change is likely to improve access to Arctic waters in the years to come, but meaningfully exploiting Arctic shipping and resources will require substantially more investment in infrastructure. Even as the Arctic’s physical geography becomes more favourable, many of the region’s natural resources require highly specialised equipment and complex logistical planning to acquire them, while only a few Arctic shipping lanes are presently viable for even modest use. The severe weather conditions of the Arctic environment necessitate the construction of expensive, custom-built equipment as well as the recruitment of skilled labourers who require extensive training and comparatively high salaries. The polar ice, a serious threat to normal vessels, is even more dangerous to drilling ships and platforms, which must maintain a precise position while operating to avoid damaging their equipment. All vessels and machinery that operate in the region must be adapted to deal with these conditions, requiring customised equipment capable of withstanding the frigid temperatures. Problematically, the lower temperatures affect the viscosity of oil and liquid gas, further increasing the implicit cost of fossil fuel extraction. Exploring and evaluating undersea resources—the first precondition for extraction—will prove difficult and expensive, and take years. The remoteness of the region is also a major liability when it comes to transporting hydrocarbons out of the Arctic. Profitable hydrocarbon extraction requires the use of tankers or pipelines to connect the region’s oil and gas fields to refinery plants. The remoteness and severe climate of the region are major detriments to pipeline transportation: the costs of initial construction and maintenance of pipelines are markedly higher in frigid regions. Companies must either construct long pipelines, carefully plan to deal with the harsh conditions, or use tankers to travel between the drilling site and the mainland. If they use ships, they must also consider seasonal closure due to ice.

Russia’s Arctic Build-up

Moscow seeks to leverage its geographical and economic advantages in the Arctic to enhance its international power and influence. Russia has a larger territory, population and military presence in the Arctic than any other country. Notwithstanding demographic pressures throughout Russia in general, and the High North in particular, several million Russians live in the Arctic. Despite having the largest Arctic territory of all five littoral countries, Moscow has also laid claim to more Arctic lands and seas than any other country, including large sections of the ocean floor as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The region generates about one-fifth of the country’s GDP, compared with only 1% of that of the United States.

Moscow aims to exploit control of Arctic sea lanes and other economic assets to extract resources and enhance leverage over other countries seeking commercial opportunities in the High North. Russia is committed to building new maritime infrastructure to support expanded Arctic shipping, energy drilling and other economic activities. The initial focus was on exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources, especially hydrocarbons. For example, the Russian government wants the country to become a leading exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). A more recent Russian economic and strategic priority has been development of the 5,000-km Northern Sea Route (NSR), a network of maritime transit passages through the melting ice above Russia’s northern coast. The government is building modern navigation aids, port facilities and search-and-rescue capabilities to support expanded shipping and other economic activities. The NSR has the potential to substantially reduce travel time for goods transiting the Northern Hemisphere between North-east Asia and Northern Europe. It can also help generate regional employment to keep more Russians from moving to more temperate parts of the country.

To support passage through the NSR as well as other civilian and military missions, Russia has undertaken a sustained build-up of its fleet of ice-cutters, including nuclear-powered ice-breakers that have more power and better endurance than conventionally powered vessels. After the Cold War, many ice-breakers became inoperable or were loaned to foreign countries or private companies, but the Russian government has regained control over most ice-cutters in the country, using them to support both civilian and military operations. Russian firms need them to support oil and gas transportation, and for rescuing distressed vessels and escorting other ships through the frozen waters of the High North. In the Arctic, these ships are the military equivalent of aircraft carriers in other oceans—the main symbol of national power projection and presence. Altogether, Russia has some 40 ice-breakers—more than the rest of the world combined.

Besides controlling the Arctic’s natural resources and shipping lanes, Moscow aims to develop power projection and defence options along Russia’s northern borders, constrain a Western military presence and leverage Russia’s Arctic assets for money and prestige. Russian official discourse no longer emphasises the imperative of making the Arctic a “zone of peace”. The Russian military has restored Soviet-era facilities, strengthened its Northern Fleet, and recently established new bases in the Arctic that include advanced air- and sea-defence systems to support Moscow’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which extends around Russia’s periphery to include the Baltic and Black seas. The demand for such systems has increased due to the melting of the Arctic ice, which makes it easier for foreign navies to attack Russia’s northern coast but also facilitates Russian power projection in the Arctic and onward to northern Europe. As in the Cold War, the Russian Navy still rehearses launching nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from under the Arctic Ocean against US targets, including in North America. Overall, the frequency and size of Russian military exercises in the Arctic have grown in recent years even as Moscow self-servingly urges NATO to avoid militarising the region.

China’s Arctic Ambitions

China owns no territory above latitude 66.50° N, but Beijing claims to be a “near-Arctic” country with equal rights to develop the region’s resources, engage in scientific and other projects, and participate in regional governance. Fearful of being excluded due to its tenuous Arctic ties and its image as a potential spoiler to other countries’ regional ambitions, Beijing’s representatives claim that Chinese goals in the Arctic, as in other regions, are entirely peaceful and are only aimed at advancing international cooperation and achieving mutual gains. China has sustained a robust programme of scientific research in the Arctic, with many projects conducted jointly with the littoral states. This benign rhetoric and activities helped Beijing secure observer status in the Arctic Council despite the initial opposition of some other Arctic states, including Russia.

To substantiate its “Polar Silk Road” vision, which sees Chinese activities in the Arctic as an extension of the Maritime Silk Road that encompasses most of Asia, China is also acquiring a fleet of ice-breakers for use in the Arctic as well as in Antarctica. Chinese experts have compared the importance of having ice-cutters for the Arctic with having aircraft carriers in other oceans. Indeed, the technologies and skills that the Chinese need to master to build large nuclear-powered ice-breakers could be applied to assist the construction of large nuclear-powered carriers for the PLA Navy.

Though Chinese officials have restrained their rhetoric about their country’s rights and privileges to share in the Arctic’s riches, Beijing has been leveraging Russia’s growing dependence on its economic ties with China to induce Moscow to support its Arctic aspirations. Russia relies on Chinese money, technology and other economic assets to develop its natural resources and build the infrastructure to support the NSR. Russian and Chinese companies are jointly exploring offshore Arctic territories for oil and gas, share ownership of the giant Yamal LNG project, are considering jointly developing the deep-water port of Arkhangelsk, and have launched the China-Russia Arctic Research Center to undertake joint research projects in the High North. Nevertheless, the focus of their joint efforts is expanding Chinese commercial navigation through the NSR, which allows some Chinese exports and imports to travel more rapidly and generate transit revenue for the Russian government.

Even so, the durability of Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic over the long term is debatable given the tenuousness of the two states’ concurrent objectives. Though Chinese entities make use of the NSR and pay transit fees to the Russian government, they join other countries in refusing to formally recognise Russian claims of sovereignty over the NSR. Some Russian strategists probably share the concern of their Western counterparts that China’s economic and commercial presence in the region may provide a stepping-stone for the country to try to impart Chinese characteristics to regional institutions and bolster its strategic foothold. Chinese investments have flowed mostly to Russia, but could change direction should the Nordic countries adopt a more inviting approach to Chinese economic activities. Although China’s ice-cutters and other capabilities have primarily civilian purposes, they could build the foundation for Chinese military activities in the region under the cloak of supporting non-military objectives. Though the Chinese presence in the Arctic is currently focused on scientific and commercial projects, Beijing might later use its expanding activity in the Arctic to justify a military presence to defend its interests there.

The Western Response

Since the Cold War, the United States has been the least active and least assertive of the littoral Arctic nations and has lacked a clear, comprehensive and consistent Arctic strategy for much of the post-Soviet era. US administrations have not treated the Arctic region as a US national security priority on a par with Europe, Asia and the Middle East or pursued comprehensive or well-resourced policies towards it. Until recently, US officials have sought to keep Russian-US frictions out of the Arctic and concentrate on addressing non-military issues like managing the warming weather and the resulting ice melt. However, since Moscow annexed Crimea and launched a proxy war in Ukraine, Western governments have suspended most dialogue with the Russian military.

The Trump administration has recently adopted a more prominent position regarding the region. The Pentagon’s April 2019 Arctic Strategy commits the Department of Defense to work with allies and partners to counter unwarranted Russian and Chinese territorial claims and maintain free and open access to the region. The United States has begun building new polar ice-cutters for the Coast Guard—which has a stated requirement for six ice-breakers for both Arctic and Antarctic missions—and announced that it will conduct freedom-of-navigation operations in the Arctic to contest Russian claims that the NSR is an internal rather than an international body of water. The US Navy has relaunched its Second Fleet in the North Atlantic and expanded exercises in the Arctic Ocean.

In a speech in Finland in May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the Arctic as recently evolving into “an arena for power and for competition”. He ridiculed China’s claims to be a “Near-Arctic State,” arguing that “only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States” are legitimate categories “and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing”. Although Pompeo welcomed Chinese investment in principle, he insisted that it needed to be transparent and constructive, and that Beijing must eschew its “pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere”. He also expressed concern about Moscow’s territorial claims, intensified military presence and plans to join the NSR with Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road. In response, Pompeo said, “Under President Trump, we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area”.

While the recent debacle between the Trump administration and Denmark over Greenland marks an unfortunate low point in bilateral relations, both parties can move forward productively. The Kingdom of Denmark has been an excellent US partner in promoting Arctic security, including by taking measures to limit large Chinese strategic investment in Greenland’s airports. Issues involved in the Arctic are too important for either party to allow contretemps such as the recent Greenland issue to affect long-term mutual collaboration. When visiting Thule in September 2018, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy John Rood released a “Statement of Intent on Defense Investments in Greenland”. The declaration affirmed the defence department’s “interest in investments in Greenland that may strengthen regional security, improve situational awareness, maintain low tension in the region, and may serve dual military and civilian use”. Though offering positive rhetoric, the declaration needs more concrete project funding and other support to realise its lofty intentions. The United States and Denmark also need to cooperate to augment their military capabilities in Greenland and elsewhere in the High North.

Norway has also been an outstanding contributor to NATO. Like Denmark, it has contributed troops to the US-led military missions Iraq and Afghanistan as well as air power to the NATO campaign in Libya. The Norwegians have invested extensively in Arctic defence capabilities and have regularly conducted large military exercise in the region. Norwegian officials, both military and civilian, want to see NATO playing a larger role in the Arctic. Norwegians have developed considerable expertise in operating in Arctic waters thanks to their own extensive offshore energy industry.

Like Norway, Canada has invested heavily in its Arctic defence and security capabilities. In the past, influential Canadians have not favoured a major NATO role in the Arctic. Some Canadians have apparently feared that non-Arctic NATO countries favour an Alliance role in the Arctic to enhance their national influence in the region. However, long-standing Canadian reluctance for NATO to have a major role in the Arctic may be thawing. Though Canada has previously supported China’s increased role in the region, the recent deterioration in Canada’s relations with both Russia and China should offer greater opportunities for Canadian-US mutual defence initiatives regarding the Arctic. The United States considers the Northwest Passage an international route, while Canada claims it falls under its jurisdiction, but they should agree to set the dispute aside to address the greater long-term challenges to joint Canadian-US interests in the Arctic.

Europe’s strained relations with Russia and China should likewise present opportunities for Washington to enhance its partnership with NATO and the EU on Arctic issues. Although NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept acknowledged new security challenges for the Alliance, such as cyber and energy security, intra-Alliance divisions and reluctance to impinge on the rights of the Arctic states have prevented NATO from fully addressing Arctic security issues. However, elevated security concerns about Russia’s growing military activities in the region have helped raise the Alliance’s profile in the region. Recent NATO exercises saw a US carrier battlegroup operate north of the Arctic Circle for the first time in decades. The military exercise Trident Juncture 2018 was the largest Alliance drill in the Arctic since the Cold War, with 50,000 troops participating that included personnel from non-NATO Nordic countries Finland and Sweden.

Making further progress should become an important item on the transatlantic agenda since all NATO members and partners would benefit from greater information sharing (for example, the EU should make a greater effort to monitor the growing Chinese investment in its Arctic members), situational awareness (NATO members could conduct regular joint threat assessments of the region) and other Arctic-related cooperation. The NATO Defence Planning Process could help member states identify gaps in the capabilities they need to achieve the Alliance’s goals in the region. Though not members of NATO, the Enhanced Opportunities Partners programme would allow Finland and Sweden to participate in some of these activities. Meetings of the annual Nordic-Baltic-US Forum (whose members include representatives from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the United States) can also help identify mutual threats and capabilities gaps and promote military interoperability

Despite disputes over the causes and impact of the Arctic’s changing climate, the United States benefits from being seen to promote environmentally responsible policies in the Arctic region. Secretary of State Pompeo struck the right note in his back-to-back May 2019 Arctic presentations, which emphasised the administration’s commitment to environmentally responsible behaviour, scientific research, improvement of the livelihood of indigenous peoples, and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the US and its allies in the region should devise a better legal framework to implement effective liability mechanisms that would cover the risks of oil or gas accidents in the Arctic. This would also increase incentives for countries and corporations to reduce the risks of such accidents. Chinese and other stakeholders should share the costs of such a mechanism given their growing hydrocarbon activities in the region. US political leaders should also follow the long-standing recommendation of Pentagon analysts and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to strengthen the US ability to counter Russian and Chinese “lawfare” in the Arctic and other global regions.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.