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Could the US Lose Access to the Arctic?

03 Nov 2021
By Shaun Cameron
Icebreaker in Antarctica. Source: Trey Ratcliff

Climate change has allowed for new energy resources and trade routes to be exploited in the Arctic. This has resulted in growing great power competition between the US, Russia, and China in the region.

Climate change has led to a present decline in Arctic sea ice that is higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years, with a reduction of 13 percent each decade. This has resulted in a vast treasure trove of energy resources becoming increasingly available for exploitation, with the US Geological Survey estimating that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil can be found in the region. This does not include the range of minerals and rare earth metals available, and Arctic infrastructure projects have proliferated from 900 registered in 2018 to nearly 8000 in 2020. The changing geography of the Arctic has turned what was once an area lauded for its stability and cooperation into a space for great power competition between the US, Russia, and China. The US may be on the losing end of this competition due to a historic lack of funding and limited assets and infrastructure.

Russia is dependent on the Arctic for 90 percent of its natural gas production and 17 percent of its oil, with these figures rising to 95 percent and 75 percent for potential reserves located in the region. Moscow plans to employ swarms of unmanned submarines to search the sea floor for resources, pit-stopping at underwater reactors along the way. Moscow’s 2020 Arctic Strategy lays out the region as critical to ensuring its economic development and great power status. A 2018 national decree expressed ambitious plans for increasing traffic in the Arctic Northern Sea Route (NSR), a seaway that could host 25 percent of Asia-Europe trade by 2030. For Russia, the Arctic is a battleground for deterring US hegemony, and militarisation will solidify its position.

Since 2008, Russia has reopened and modernised over four dozen military bases and dual-use sites, instituted arctic brigades and joint military commands, and deployed advanced missile and air-defence systems. The state has conducted regional offensive simulations, jammed military equipment during a 2018 Arctic NATO exercise, and operates a fleet of nuclear and conventional icebreakers. Russian militarisation has been viewed as defensive in protecting its second-strike nuclear submarine capability in the Kola Peninsula and mitigating decreasing natural ice barriers that once protected its borders. However, others observe Russia’s ability to attack the US mainland and NATO allies in northern Europe.

While Russia’s military footprint is expanding, it is still surrounded by adversarial neighbours. Five of the seven Arctic states are NATO allies (the US, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway), with the remaining two being enhanced opportunity partners (Sweden and Finland). Military hardware is ageing, and the NSR is further vulnerable to unpredictable harsh conditions, which caused an 80 percent decrease in shipping from 2013 to 2014. Additionally, Russia’s only hydrocarbon production project on the Arctic shelf has decreased its output by two million tons of oil annually from 2017 to 2020. The state’s power ambitions have been predicated on energy infrastructure, investment to which was cut off in the wake of post-Crimea 2014 economic sanctions. Where funding was lacking, Chinese entities stepped in  to take a 30 percent stake in the Yamal LNG plant.

For China, the Arctic holds not only resources, but access to a seaway that could cut up to 15 days off travel through the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca, and avoids US naval presence. In its 2018 Arctic Policy, China declared itself a “Near Arctic State,” arguing that it is an Arctic stakeholder because the changing conditions of the region having an impact on its climate, environment, and economic interests. Economic investment has been a pillar of China’s regional strategy. China shares free trade with Iceland, is a top investor in Sweden, is stoking investment with Norway, and has developed a deal with Finland for a data Silk Road connecting Europe and Asia by underwater communication cable.

China has capitalised on Greenland’s view that tourism could be a path towards its independence from Denmark and is investing in airport construction. China is also investing in rare earth mining, which furthers its ability to threaten US and European military digitisation. The attempted 2016 purchase of an abandoned US naval base raised concerns over Chinese military presence on the island, while increasing financial influence could allow for pressure on Greenland to close the US Thule air base, hampering Washington’s missile warning and space surveillance capabilities.

A Russian military presence and China’s growing economic influence on Arctic neighbours will be of concern to US policy makers. Chinese involvement in the region has been focused commercially, but the state is developing regional icebreaking and satellite capabilities. Sino-Russian strategic convergence could further be cemented if Russia allows China influence in Arctic governance during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2021-2023. While Russia and China are still competitors in the Arctic space, this relationship could offer both states the ability to extract energy resources and take advantage of new trade routes while controlling the participation of other states in the Arctic. In 2019, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined the significance of the Arctic as “an arena of global power and competition,” but this strategic pivot may be too late.

Successive US administrations have avoided resourcing the Arctic, resulting in a decade of inactivity beyond submarine patrols for strategic deterrence towards Russia. The US is the only Arctic state without a deep-water port, and it has limited ice-breaking capabilities. Alaskan geography further hampers infrastructure development due to its relatively shallow shores. US agencies involved in Arctic affairs have had much difficulty in addressing regional challenges, with limited assets to address threats. Washington has fallen behind in its Arctic military presence and capability, specifically in its ability to counter Chinese infrastructure funding for its Arctic neighbours. It has also not invested in the means to counter Sino-Russian advances or to take advantage of Arctic opportunities for energy or trade route exploitation. The US Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that the US will likely lose access to portions of the Arctic by 2050, and Russian advances in anti-access and aerial denial capabilities will increase subsequent costs for US entry.

To address this position, US and European NATO allies could consider a multilateral approach to sharing scarce capabilities and data to create a common operating concept of Sino-Russian activities and challenges. Engagement with Arctic states may increase shared capability. Finland is a leader in icebreaker ship building, Sweden in submarine construction, and Denmark, Canada, and Iceland each provide their own opportunities for military-civil basing and infrastructure. The private sector could be enticed to develop infrastructure in Alaska, US diplomatic posts and consulates could be increased, and a sustainable economic fund could be developed for investment in the region.

As climate change has altered the Arctic environment, new possibilities for energy extraction have also emerged as a new landscape for great power rivalries. Russia has established its military presence in the region, but its energy extraction capabilities have been hampered by a lack of funding. China has also increased its influence through the implementation of a strategy of regional investment. The US presence in the Arctic is vulnerable to Russian military capabilities and China’s growing economic influence, and is further lagging in policies to improve its capability in the region. The US may only be able to regain its position through regional multilateral alliances and resource sharing.

Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student in international relations at Curtin University. He is currently working in Asia, and has a background in academic research, teaching, and psychology. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.