Arctic Options: Why America Should Invest in a Future with China

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September 30, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ArcticChinaAmericaClimate ChangeIce Breakers

Arctic Options: Why America Should Invest in a Future with China

America needs to increase its engagement in the Arctic’s rapidly-changing geopolitical environment because inaction could lead to Washington losing future opportunities in the area.


In August, the Arctic’s oldest and thickest sea ice broke up, releasing water on Greenland’s northern coast that typically remains frozen throughout the year. Occurring for the second time this year, the melting ice not only raises environmental concerns, but also brings the potential for geopolitical change. China presents a driving force behind such change, moving to take advantage of the shifting landscape and the resources that may soon become more readily accessible. As China pushes to assert itself on the Arctic stage, the United States’ ability to engage with and manage China’s Arctic activities is constrained by the lack of a targeted Arctic policy.

Recently, China has ramped up its efforts to involve itself in the region. In 2017, the nation conducted five Arctic voyages and held high-level meetings with all eight members of the Arctic Council. A senior Chinese delegation met with officials in Iceland, and President Xi Jinping met with leaders of the other seven countries, including a stopover in Alaska. Most notably, in January 2018, Beijing released its Arctic white paper. By compiling its Arctic policy for a foreign audience, China has endeavored to further assert and legitimize its interests in the region before the international community.


Understanding that China’s self-identification as a “near-Arctic State,” is not fully recognized by international law, the country validates its Arctic claims through two treaties: the 1920 Svalbard Treaty and the 1982 United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The white paper seeks to reassure Arctic states that China does not represent a disruptive force by repeatedly emphasizing its respect for international law. Nevertheless, Canadian scholars have expressed concern that China’s promotion of international law is an attempt to restrict Arctic states’ sovereignty. Indeed, the white paper also highlights the global significance of the Arctic, underlining China’s belief that the region and its resources should not be monopolized by the few Arctic states. Moreover, China has argued that the current Arctic governance is inadequate and sees itself as playing a “critical role” in shaping a new system. This presents a potential point of contention, since the other Arctic states disagree that there is a “governance gap.”

A Chinese Arctic presence does not necessarily present a threat to the United States. However, without greater U.S. engagement in the Arctic’s rapidly-changing geopolitical environment, Washington could lose future opportunities there. Rebecca Pincus of the Naval War College explains that by 2050 the United States could face an entirely different political atmosphere in the Arctic with China as the dominant power. Consequently, the United States would benefit from finding ways to engage and cooperate with China to ensure its growth in the region aligns with American interests.

In fact, there are several areas for potential U.S.-China cooperation in the Arctic. For example, the two states share the view that both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route constitute international waters. Additionally, as Alaska’s largest trading partner China could play a role in developing the state’s Arctic regions. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, the United States needs to make further steps to strengthen its position in the Arctic. At a Stimson Center event in June, Robert Ortteung of George Washington University observed that despite Chinese interest in energy and tourism in Alaska, U.S. inactivity in the region may prevent Sino-U.S. cooperation from being realized.

In contrast to China’s recent advances, U.S. access to the polar regions has reached a historic low. While China’s first homemade polar icebreaker Xuelong 2 is expected to be completed in 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard’s only heavy ice breaker will not last past 2023. Plans for a new icebreaker to replace Polar Star have encountered a recent setback when the Department of Homeland security proposed to reallocate money to fund the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Funding seems to be a key issue in U.S. Arctic efforts, with Andrew Holland of the American Security Project observing that the Department of Defense has not invested in the resources needed to carry out its new Arctic strategy. Consequently, an obvious first step to increase U.S. Arctic engagement is to ensure that funding is properly allocated to meet the future challenges of a new geopolitical dynamic.

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Another step in boosting U.S. Arctic activity is ratifying UNCLOS. A controversial issue, this would provide the United States with a comprehensive framework to engage with Arctic issues and protect its national interests there. It would also give the United States a direct voice in attendant bodies such as Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the International Seabed Authority, and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. However, the past several decades of complacency and failure to ratify UNCLOS does not bode well for its future in Washington.

In the absence of UNCLOS ratification, the United States can focus on leveraging other advantages it has over China. Unlike China, the United States does not need to validate its claims to the region. While China may need to push for a new form of Arctic governance that it creates, the United States can utilize its status as an Arctic state to work with existing regional forms of governance such as the Arctic Council. This should be coupled with greater diplomatic engagement on Arctic issues. For example, while Xi discussed Arctic cooperation in his meeting with Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg, it does not appear that President Trump did the same in his January meeting with Solberg. Diplomatic engagement should also include filling key vacancies such as the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic.

In a 2011 article on China’s Arctic aspirations, Cheng Baozhi of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies stated that “China plans to make itself heard before arrangements are made, so that its views can be incorporated into any arrangements.” This is the attitude the United States must adopt. Amidst the changing Arctic environment, the United States must confront its shifting—and possibly deteriorating—position and make sure its voice is heard.

Alison McFarland is a Research Intern in the China Program at the Stimson Center. She is a master’s student at the University of Bath studying Translation with Business Interpreting (Chinese).

Image: Wikimedia