China, Russia move into the Arctic — and put US at risk

China, Russia move into the Arctic — and put US at risk
© MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Progressive nonprofits sue White House over missing notes from Putin meeting Progressive nonprofits sue White House over missing notes from Putin meeting MORE called out Russian and Chinese activities and intentions in the Arctic, shocking his fellow foreign ministers at the biannual meeting of the Arctic Council, the premier regional forum for Arctic matters.

Pompeo disturbed a norm that had held since the council’s 1996 founding. For over 20 years Arctic states have attempted to compartmentalize Arctic cooperation on scientific research, environmental protection, fisheries management and search and rescue protocols — avoiding hard-power competition in military security and trade.  

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Pompeo’s speech peeled back the veneer of cooperation to expose the underlying great power competition that has been building for the past five years.  

Though as early as 2015 Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende predicted the Arctic will not remain compartmentalized from broader geopolitical concerns, historians may remember Pompeo’s speech as the start of an emerging “great game” between and among the United States, Russia and China in the Arctic; perhaps even as the start of a new cold war (no pun intended).

Why would Pompeo do this and jeopardize the cooperative spirit among Arctic states?  The answer is that the Trump administration — like the regime of Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinProgressive nonprofits sue White House over missing notes from Putin meeting Progressive nonprofits sue White House over missing notes from Putin meeting Russian lawmakers back Putin on withdrawal from nuclear arms treaty MORE in Russia and the Xi Jinping government in China — sees the world through realist, zero-sum glasses.

The Chinese need to sustain economic growth. One way to do that is to improve their access to natural resources, particularly energy, rare-earth minerals and sea-based protein.  They also would like to develop an alternative shipping route from Europe to Asia that is not dependent on the Straits of Malacca or the Suez Canal, areas with a heavy U.S. naval presence.  

Chinese actions in the Arctic are consistent with these goals. They are investing heavily in Russia’s natural gas fields in the Yamal Peninsula, mining in Greenland, and real estate, alternative energy and fisheries in Iceland. They are building icebreakers and ice-hardened ships to ply Arctic waters. And they are asserting themselves into international debates over Arctic governance, most recently by calling themselves a “near-Arctic” state.

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Russia’s status as a great power is largely contingent on what they do in the Arctic. Their economy is heavily dependent on exporting oil and gas, much of which comes from their Arctic territory. Their fleet of nuclear-armed submarines is based in Murmansk, above the Arctic Circle. And they see the Northern Sea Route (NSR), a shipping channel along the Siberian coast, as a potential revenue source as well as an area that needs to be protected from oil spills and controlled from a military security perspective.  

Russian actions in the Arctic arguably are consistent with these interests. They developed the Yamal natural gas fields with Chinese assistance. They refurbished or created military bases near Murmansk and along the NSR, and deployed what they claim are defensive weapons and search and rescue capabilities to those bases. They passed laws to tightly regulate who can use the NSR and how they can do so, and argue that those laws are justified by section 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  

Parts of the U.S. national security community see these developments with alarm. The security of the United States and its allies depends on preventing regional hegemony or coercion by hostile powers. Economic prosperity depends on the protection of the global commons.

In the Arctic, U.S. security interests are closely linked to allies’ and partner nations’ freedom from both coercion and threats to their territorial integrity. U.S. economic interests are closely linked to the maintenance of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) for resource extraction, and to regional freedom of navigation in Arctic international waters.  

From a power-politics perspective, Chinese and Russian actions in the Arctic put U.S. security and economic interests at risk.  

There is near-consensus in the United States that Russia challenges the international order through its actions in Ukraine, its remilitarization of its northern and eastern provinces, and its repeated infringements on Nordic and Baltic states’ airspace and territorial waters.  From a U.S. security perspective, then, Russia’s Arctic buildup seems less defensive and more like the precursor to unilateral control of an international shipping route and an attempt to intimidate neighboring Scandinavian states.

The United States, like much of the western international community, increasingly is alarmed by China’s use of predatory loans to build infrastructure across the developing world, and then to control that infrastructure when borrowers default. Many are alarmed by China’s questionable environmental record when it comes to resource extraction.  Moreover, many in the security community see China as actively trying to undermine the U.S.-led international order.

These officials see Chinese investment in Greenland’s mines as an attempt to corner the market on rare-earth minerals, to say nothing of being a recipe for environmental disaster.  In a worst-case scenario, a Chinese-backed Greenland someday could even reconsider allowing the U.S. access to the Thule early warning and missile tracking facility, and use the facility for Chinese submarines instead. These officials see Chinese investment in Iceland as an attempt to lock in access to Arctic shipping route infrastructure, and even as a way to peel away a NATO ally. They see China’s attempt to change the governance narrative in the Arctic as a challenge to Arctic state control of their territories and EEZs.

Secretary Pompeo’s remarks should come as no surprise. They are consistent with a realist, power-politics perspective, and with the Trump administration’s emphasis on “America first” in an era of great power competition with the potential for great power conflict.  

The most recent National Defense Strategy explicitly calls for “expanding the competitive space.” Now that climate change and record ice melt are opening up the Arctic, it is no wonder that competition and power politics has bled into this once pristine region.  

Dr. David Auerswald is a professor of security studies at the National War College in Washington, D.C. Col. Terry L. Anderson is a professor of practice at the National War College. He was the U.S. senior defense official in Berlin from 2015-2018.  

Note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and not the National War College, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the U.S. government.