In Fairbanks, Alaska, last week, the United States passed the Arctic Council gavel to Finland. Started over twenty years ago, the council brings together the eight Arctic nations to tackle common problems in the region before they get out of hand.
The consensus-based forum has shown that cooperation in the region works — at least when it comes to reaching agreements on search and rescue, oil-spill response and, as of last week, scientific cooperation. The council does not, however, tackle matters of military security, and the question going forward is whether that cooperation will hold in the face of a changing climate.
The answer is by no means clear. Thawing in the region has inspired a geo-strategic chess game in which the United States finds itself with few pieces and even fewer moves.
The Arctic is a geographically enormous area, approximately the size of Africa. The region is also heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, triggering a massive decline in sea ice and snow. With less ice, a new ocean is opening. New possibilities for resource extraction, tourism, fishing and navigation have emerged.
The Arctic’s natural resources, in the words of former Iceland President Olafur Grimsson, contain “the essential elements for the next century to be successful.” The promise of resource exploitation has already motivated Russia and, in some instances other countries, to assert greater territorial rights, enhance Arctic military capabilities and make investments to facilitate commercial activity.
Unfortunately, the United States has remained a relative bystander to this expanding Arctic activity.
With the disappearance of the snow and ice, the region is at risk of veering from its history of cooperation. A Department of Defense report issued in December 2016 predicted that “competition for economic advantage and a desire to exert influence over an area of increasing geostrategic importance could lead to increased tension.”
In what may be a prelude, the region is already witnessing increased shows of Russian military might. Russia created a military command dedicated to the Arctic in 2014 and staged a massive military drill in March 2015. It is building ten new air defense radar stations and has equipped six new military bases in the region, both on its shores and on outlying Arctic islands.
Russia has also claimed 463,000 square miles of seabed off its coasts — an area about the size of South Africa — which the country is entitled to under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But while more than 160 nations have ratified UNCLOS, the United States is not among them.
The treaty has particular significance in the Arctic because so much of the area is covered by water. If the U.S. were to ratify the treaty, it could lay claim to the potentially resource-rich seabed off its Alaskan coast, an area about twice the size of California. Instead, the U.S. sits outside the UNCLOS process, unable either to contest Russia’s claim directly or make its own.
As a new ocean opens, so has interest in cutting shipping times and cost from Asia to Europe. In 2012, a Chinese icebreaker dubbed the Snow Dragon transited the Arctic. A Chinese cargo ship followed the next year. China’s giant state-run shipping company, COSCO, has announced its intention to take advantage of the shorter routes and the government is building a second icebreaker.
Russia has invested along the Northern Sea Route, building deep-water ports, telecommunications capabilities and new search-and-rescue stations. It maintains a fleet of forty icebreakers, including six that are nuclear-powered.
By comparison, the United States’ icebreaker fleet consists of one heavy icebreaker, which is “on life support,” according to the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft. The fleet also includes one medium icebreaker, but no deep-water port within the Arctic Circle. The federal government currently lacks a fully funded plan either to build additional ice-breakers or a deep-water port.
In this race against warming temperatures, the question is whether the Arctic region, through the Arctic Council or some other means, will remain a place of peaceful cooperation. The stakes could not be higher, both to participate in the possible commercial boom and to ensure security.
Unfortunately, the United States continues to act as if what happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic. As a result, we risk having other nations outmaneuver us on this icy new chess board.
Alice C. Hill is a research fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution, where her work focuses on building resilience to destabilizing catastrophic events such as climate change. She previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council.
The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.