The era of “Great Power Competition” has arrived and it is playing out between the United States, Russia, and China in the Arctic. This vital region is not just about strategic sea lanes that are opening due to changes in the region’s climate, it is the home to massive reserves of energy resources, precious metals, and rare earth deposits.
While the competition is fierce and defense spending among all three nations is on the rise, the dynamic is different than other areas of friction such as in the Baltic, South China Sea and the East China Sea. Geography and multilateral governance structures, create opportunities for America and its allies but seizing those opportunities will take dedicated diplomacy and persistent presence in the region.
The Trump administration made improving the United States’ ability to compete in the Arctic a top priority. In 2019, the Department of Defense published an Arctic Strategy that focused on the challenges presented by Russia and China in the region. By year’s end, the Navy had reestablished its 2nd Fleet for North Atlantic and Arctic operations. The Navy’s move paved the way for increased monitoring of Russian subsurface operations and generally increased our Arctic situational awareness. Missile defense upgrades to track new generations of missiles coming over the poles is also critical to the defense of the homeland. Accordingly, the Trump administration regularly sought additional funds for this purpose and published a missile defense review that found an urgent need to bolster America’s investment in this area.
To further bolster American presence in the region, the NSC led an interagency process to lease two Ice Breakers for the U.S. Coast Guard. While the United States does not typically lease warships, this step is necessary to fill the several year gap before the Polar Security Cutter program starts delivering the service new ice breakers. The leased ice breakers will increase our access to missile defense radars, military outposts, and pre-positioned supplies in times of distress and provide freedom of navigation and intelligence platforms on an ongoing basis during peacetime. We also began the process of studying where best to homeport these ships as well as the future Polar Security Cutters. Alaska is shaping up to be that ideal location. Getting the ships closer to their patrol areas puts them in the center of the action, saves the Coast Guard time and money, and puts our USCG personnel closer to their families.
To buttress our defense efforts, the Administration engaged in intensive diplomacy with other Arctic nations. Our relationships with Denmark, its constituent territory of Greenland, Norway, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, on arctic issues have never been stronger. We shared key intelligence and insights with our allies on the threats posed by both Russia and China in the region. Those areas include use of untrustworthy Chinese telecoms such as Huawei and ZTE as well as the danger of relying on Chinese made and operated undersea fiberoptic cables.
The United States took the important step of opening a consulate in Nuuk to better strengthen ties between Americans, Greenlanders, and Danes. We followed up with a virtual summit of senior leaders to cement this three-way partnership. The United States brought agencies such as the Development Finance Corporation, Export-Import Bank, and USAID to the summit. Partnering with the State of Alaska, we suggested how to upgrade the regulatory framework in Greenland for the extraction of natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner and how to ensure workers in the industry were protected.
In addition to bilateral efforts, successful Arctic diplomacy requires multilateral engagement at the Arctic Council where key regional decision-making takes place. Russia plays an important role as a member of the Arctic Council whereas China merely enjoys observer status. In early October 2020, we met with our Russian counterparts in Geneva on a long list of topics. While progress was slow on most issues, when it came to the Arctic, we found common understanding that there were only “Arctic nations” and “non-Arctic nations.” We agreed that while the views of non-Arctic nations such as China might be interesting, only Arctic nations should be at the table when decisions about the region are made. One of our Russian counterparts emphasized the point by dryly remarking that a “silkworm cannot survive in the Arctic.”
As melting ice opens new shipping routes and exposes a treasure trove of natural resources, we can expect continued Russian and Chinese military and commercial activity in the Arctic. The United States cannot and should not attempt to exclude countries from the region. We can, however, ensure that our own strategic interests are protected and require other nations to play by the rules of the road established by the Arctic Council to prevent the type of bullying we see in places like the South China Sea. The Biden Administration can achieve this outcome by building upon the investments in our military presence and continuing the diplomatic outreach undertaken by the Trump administration.
Robert C. O’Brien served as the 28th National Security Advisor from 2019-2021.
Ryan Tully served as the Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs at the National Security Council from 2020-2021.