Late last year, several Russian submarines submerged and slipped out of their bases on the Kola Peninsula on the Arctic coast and passed through the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom Gap in this vital maritime region. Once out in the wider North Atlantic, the Russian submarines conducted maneuvers to test their ability to intercept convoys and threaten the east coast of the United States. The deployment represented the largest such exercise since the end of the Cold War a few decades ago.
With great power competition heating up even as Arctic ice caps melt due to climate change, the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom Gap and those nearby maritime transit routes are retaking the strategic significance they held during the 20th century. As Winston Churchill once cited the German General Karl Haushofer, “Whoever controls Iceland holds a revolver that is always pointed at Britain, Canada, and the United States.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has declared its Atlantic Command fully operational, ready to conduct exercises and carry out plans covering a maritime region that stretches from the east coast of the United States, past the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom Gap and then into the Arctic, where immense energy and mineral resources beckon. American military leaders have said the Atlantic Command must consider the passages and waterways once more a potentially contested battle area.
Such rising strategic importance of Greenland and Iceland is not lost on Moscow or Beijing. Since the Russian Northern Fleet based on Murmansk can only reach the Atlantic across the Greenland Iceland United Kingdom Gap, Russian submarine activity has increased tenfold through the North Atlantic. With the melting of the Arctic ice caps, Moscow also now views extraction of the vast energy and mineral resources as critical, and it has passed legislation defining the sea route that runs along the Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait. The entire sea route across Arctic waters lies within the Russian exclusive economic zone.
The better known Chinese activities across the Arctic are based on its vast investments, as Beijing has instituted several scientific research programs with clear military applications. Two years ago, China had offered Iceland membership with the Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi has described his vision of adding Arctic routes on the Polar Silk Road.
China has reached out with investments to other Arctic nations, however, Greenland and Iceland have attracted the largest amounts as a portion of their economies. Two years ago, the China Communications Construction Company bid to build airports in Greenland. One more Chinese company, General Nice Group, bid to buy a naval base in Greenland. But the Danish government financed half of the airports and halted the purchase for the naval base, forcing both the firms to withdraw the bids.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland secured the first free trade deal between a European country and China. This action fostered scientific collaborations between Iceland and China, including the China Iceland Arctic Observatory and the China Nordic Arctic Research Center. Such jockeying in the strategic islands has drawn attention to their status, as neither Greenland nor Iceland are members in the European Union, but both are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
With no military of its own, Iceland is dependent on the alliance and the bilateral defense agreement with the United States for its security, even after the withdrawal of American forces in 2006. The coast of Greenland had been watched solely by the Danish Joint Arctic Command. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has recently declared the new agreement to monitor and bolster the military defense of Greenland.
The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress hosted an event this week with American Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands and Danish Ambassador to the Arctic Thomas Winkler. It stressed the importance of a new deal for continued maintenance of the Thule Air Base in Greenland, a critical early missile warning and key space surveillance facility. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization needs the Arctic strategy which accounts for the growing strategic significance across the region.
“Because of climate change and because of economic competition in the region, we have seen more of a great game of power, where the Russians and the Chinese are interested in access to the Arctic, the sea routes, and the potential natural resources,” said Assistant Secretary General Camille Grand earlier this year. As for a blueprint for managing that great game of power in the Arctic, she noted, “We are not there yet.”
Glenn Nye is a former member for Congress who is president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Maria Damsgaard is a policy analyst who is at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.