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Great Power Competition in the Arctic

Setting aside jokes surrounding President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s July visit to Greenland was billed as a re-invigoration of U.S. Arctic strategy with a re-opening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk as well as a $12.1 million aid package to Greenland. The larger story, however, was Pompeo’s bid for European and North American states to form a coalition against Russian and Chinese interests in the Arctic. Great power jockeying has long dominated interest in Arctic affairs, and the sidelining of more concrete issues — such as the environmental protection talks and research funding discussed during July’s state visit — is not a new issue. It is significant, however, that the U.S. Arctic strategy is geared almost exclusively towards the undermining of Russian and Chinese interests rather than the promotion of American ones.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo participates in the Arctic Council Ministers Family Photo in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 7, 2019. Image by Ron Przysucha – U.S. Department of State

Unlike Antarctica, an internationally-held region, the Arctic is comprised of sovereign claims from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway,  Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. While China does not claim territory above the Arctic Circle, it considers itself to be a “Near-Arctic Nation” and holds observer status at the Arctic Council. Beijing’s interest in the Far North, accelerated over the last decade, is widely-viewed as a preemptive bid for control of economic resources in the region.  In spite of the devastating environmental consequences of historic northern sea ice melt, Arctic countries stand to gain economically from the opening of new shipping lanes and increased access to seabed mineral deposits. China’s Arctic policy explicitly enumerates the country’s interest in capturing a share of these benefits, driving China’s recent northern pivot.

In order to lend credence to Beijing’s somewhat dubious claim to near-Arctic status, China launched the Polar Silk Road initiative in 2018, building on the soft-power tactics of the Belt and Road system by investing in infrastructure development in Far North communities. Much has been made of Chinese military advancements in the Arctic, such as the development of icebreaker ships and the deployment of naval vessels to the Bering Sea, with U.S. policymakers in particular arguing that these statistics indicate a Chinese military threat. There is, however, little evidence that Beijing is prepared to directly oppose Washington or Moscow by pursuing a military strategy in the Arctic. Rather, the rollout of Chinese military units serves to reinforce Beijing’s overarching Arctic priority — securing China’s economic claims through commercial ventures and investment opportunities.

As the country with the largest amount of land above the Arctic Circle, Russia’s first priority is defending its historic right to rule over the Far North, securing its own territorial interests against those of NATO-aligned states. Economic considerations — particularly Arctic mineral deposits — are also important for Russia, one of the world’s top producers of oil and gas. But Moscow has significantly escalated its Arctic military posture in recent years, beginning in 2010 with the revitalization of Soviet-Era military bases. While Moscow claimed that these investments were intended to shore up search-and-rescue capabilities in the Arctic, Western pundits speculated that they were the first signs of Arctic militarization. In 2014, Russia formed the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, giving greater autonomy to the country’s Northern Fleet and doing away with the humanitarian guise of Arctic buildup. Taken together, these developments suggest that economic factors are a secondary concern for Russia with security and sovereignty emerging as primary issues.

Russia has long felt disadvantaged in Arctic governance. Since the seven other Arctic nations are NATO members or Enhanced Opportunities Partners, the combined weight of the alliance has overwhelmingly steered decisions of the Arctic Council towards NATO priorities. For much of the history of the Arctic Council, the historic NATO-Russia animosity was set aside to advance mutually-beneficial policies. But as Moscow’s relations with the West soured after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia found itself increasingly ostracized from Arctic discussions. It is no accident that this diplomatic cooling coincided with Russian military buildup. Today, as NATO solidarity is under strain both by the bombast of President Trump’s rhetoric and by growing nationalism in Europe, Russia has a golden opportunity to secure claims to its Arctic sovereignty. Putin may well take advantage of this internal distraction to make a move on Lomonosov Ridge, the Arctic territory claimed by Russia, Canada, and Denmark. Ending this dispute in Moscow’s favor would not only secure a swath of mineral-rich seabed, but would secure Russia’s position as an unchallenged Arctic power.

America’s great power competitors have set forward Arctic strategies with clearly enumerated geopolitical goals: China aims to replicate the success of the Belt and Road initiative in the Arctic for economic benefit, while Russia seeks to consolidate sovereign claims. But it is unclear what the U.S. stands to gain from such power jockeying, as Alaska’s uncontested borders inoculate Washington from disputes over territorial integrity or competing claims to resource reserves. Rather, the American pivot to the Arctic under President Trump — which came significantly later than that of Russia or China — is primarily a strategy of deterrence. This effort to preserve American status as a powerful Arctic player is not in and of itself problematic. But when U.S. strategy is effectively limited to military engagement (the Department of Defense and Air Force are the only U.S. entities with publicly-available Arctic strategy documents), the U.S. risks compromising the tradition of multilateral policy-making in the Arctic in favor of grandstanding against great power competitors.

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Kathryn Urban

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