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Arctic Icebreaker © Katrin York

US Falls Behind in the Arctic Arms Race

Many international actors have recognized the growing strategic and commercial importance of the Arctic Circle and its newly opening waterways.

In August 2017, the Russian tanker Christophe de Margerie completed a northern expedition through the Arctic Circle, traveling from Norway to South Korea in the span of 19 days without an icebreaker escort. News of the voyage provided a jolt to an international community that had been anxiously watching what appeared to be the beginnings of an Arctic arms race.

Less than one year later, China made a dramatic entrance into the strategic arena of the Arctic Circle. On January 26, 2018, China’s State Council Information Office released its first white paper on China’s Arctic policy. The document announced plans for an Arctic addition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which spans much of Asia and Europe. The Polar Silk Road aims to enhance cooperation between China and the Arctic nations such as Finland and Russia, while serving to expand Beijing’s reach into many untapped resources and largely ambiguous territorial claims.

Many observers have taken note of China’s use of the phrase “near-Arctic state” to refer to its status in Arctic affairs. The change in designation from “non-Arctic” to “near-Arctic” seems to declare, in the eyes of many analysts, an intent to project greater geopolitical influence in the region in the years to come.

As climate change continues to reshape the Arctic Circle, new trade routes are opening and granting access to many resources that have been historically inaccessible. Control of these resources, as well as the shipping routes surrounding them, will largely be a matter of which nations develop a presence in the region more quickly.

Russia, for instance, already has a serious footprint in the Arctic. Over the past few years it has been pouring money into the Arctic Circle at a rate not seen since the Cold War. This has resulted in a fleet of icebreakers, among which six are nuclear. Russian investment in the Arctic has been the topic of consternation among NATO powers for the past several years. As partners in the Belt and Road, Russia and China have agreed to cooperate on the exploitation of Arctic sea routes in the coming years.

The combination of Russian military presence and Chinese economic investment in the Arctic could pose a real threat to US interests in the region. And yet, the United States has remained remarkably quiet on the Arctic scene. While technically a member of the Arctic Council, actual US involvement in Arctic affairs has traditionally been very limited and seems unlikely to change any time soon. The US currently has exactly one operational heavy icebreaker — the Polar Star — and according to the US Coast Guard it is unlikely to last until 2023, the earliest date by which a new icebreaker may be operational. Meanwhile, China has recently launched the Snow Dragon 2, its first indigenously-built icebreaker, which will operate alongside its Ukrainian-made predecessor, the Snow Dragon, in order to further the goals of the Polar Silk Road project.

Many international actors have recognized the growing strategic and commercial importance of the Arctic Circle and its newly opening waterways. There are currently 13 non-local observer states in the Arctic Council. Although Russia and China have held the media spotlight in recent Arctic affairs, there are three other active observers from the Asia-Pacific region alone. Singapore, as well as China’s rivals, Japan and South Korea, are among the observers and have been eyeing their own strategic initiatives. Singapore, for example, has been quietly expanding its Arctic presence and deepening ties to Russia in the process.

China, Russia and others are formulating strategies to exploit the altered conditions that climate change is bringing to the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, the United States is currently led by an administration that does not believe in climate change, even going so far as to suggest it is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. Failure to accept the scientific foundation of changing Arctic conditions naturally impedes strategic exploitation of those changes and may explain how the United States has thus far been outmaneuvered by its great power rivals in this arena.

This is not to say that the United States is taking no steps whatsoever. Prompted by a growing bipartisan calls to respond to the shifting strategic landscape in the northernmost reaches of the world, the Pentagon is currently reviewing its Arctic strategy and intends to release a new strategy this summer. The US Navy also held its biennial ICEX Arctic military exercise in March in order to assess operational readiness in the region.

However, there has been little concrete progress in terms of expanding economic initiatives or deepening transportation capacity. The global race for Arctic influence is already well underway, and China’s latest moves have put the country in a strong strategic position. As of right now, the United States is late off the starting block and needs to take immediate action before it’s too late to catch up.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Katrin York / Shutterstock.com