geopolitics | Despite US-Russia tensions, Arctic powers eye cooperation

Despite US-Russia tensions, Arctic powers eye cooperation

A Council on Foreign Relations report notes both competition and cooperation among China, Russia and the US at the top of the world

March 29, 2017 7:15 PM (UTC+8)
A whale dives into sea off the coast of Greenland.   Photo: Reuters
A whale dives into sea off the coast of Greenland. Photo: Reuters

The United States should strengthen its strategic commitment to the Arctic as melting sea ice opens up the resource-rich region to shipping and other economic activity, says a report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think-tank. If not, the US risks being left on the margins of an increasingly important part of the world, outplayed by countries such as Russia and China.

At the same time, opportunities for cooperation among the US, Russia and China are greater at the top of the world than in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea, the report says. Tensions elsewhere may threaten collaboration among the three countries but so far they have managed to cooperate with little rancor on economic, security and scientific matters in the Arctic. Professor of Practice Rockford Weitz, an authority on the Arctic who directs the Maritime Studies Program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, said: “The potential for cooperation in the Arctic is greater than the potential for confrontation.”

Russia is said to be especially keen on harnessing Western technology and capital to develop oil and gas reserves in the far north of the country. The US National Science Foundation and the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration are expanding scientific collaboration.

The CFR report, Arctic Imperatives: Reinforcing US Strategy on America’s Fourth Coast, was drawn up by 20 independent experts jointly presided over by Thad Allen, a retired admiral and former commandant of the US Coast Guard, and Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey. The “fourth coast” in the title refers to the northern coast of Alaska.

The report’s major finding is the US lags other countries on the Arctic rim in updating their strategic and commercial calculus to take advantage of changing conditions. The experts say that for it catch up, the US Senate should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This will give the US legal rights to resources under the surface of 1 million square kilometers of sea covering the Alaskan continental shelf in the Arctic.

Additional recommendations include building more icebreaking ships and improving infrastructure, such as ports, roads and telecommunications facilities. The experts also urge the US to strengthen cooperation with other Arctic-rim countries, and to support sustainable development and fund scientific research in the region.

The cap shrinks

The New York Times reports that the Arctic has less sea ice this winter than in any of the 40 years since satellite surveillance of the region began. The shrinking of the icecap makes it likely that the Arctic Ocean will soon be sufficiently navigable for shipping services linking Europe and North America with Asia to traverse it.

The Nordic Orion, a Danish bulk carrier, navigated the Northwest Passage from Vancouver to Finland in 2013. Dozens of ships, flying the flags of many countries, have now nudged through the fabled channel in the far north of Canada, and the number increases each year as the ice recedes. The Chinese Maritime Safety Administration issued last year a 356-page guide for Chinese shipping companies interested in using the route.

The CFR says China has invested in mines in Greenland and is negotiating a free trade agreement with Iceland. Five Chinese Navy ships unnerved the US in September 2015 by mounting an unprecedented patrol that took them into US territorial waters off Alaska. China has yet to become a power in the Arctic but the CFR report says: “Its ambitions in the region merit careful attention.”

Icebreaker race

One of the main weaknesses of the US force in the Arctic is its paucity of icebreaking ships. Russia and China boast large numbers of modern icebreakers, but the US has just two operational icebreakers, one heavyweight and one medium-weight, to serve both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The report argues ships are needed to cut through ice for a range of security and economic purposes, and recommends more funding. “Without icebreaking capability, you don’t have force presence on the surface, and you can’t do the typical things that governments do in search-and-rescue and pollution control,” Weitz said. “The US also needs some kind of presence up there because of the increased commercial activity.”

The Chinese military is building a fleet of specialized icebreakers, the report says. The fleet currently includes the Xue Long and the newly launched Haibing 722. A third ship is near completion. China is also developing next-generation, deep-sea robots useful for prospecting and mining in areas once considered inaccessible, such as the Arctic. “Robotic mining is key,” Weitz said.

Freezing cold war

The US and Russia have avoided a clash over the Arctic but the direction of their relations is uncertain. The CFR report says: “The United States faces one of its most critical and difficult strategic challenges in interpreting Russia’s intentions in the Arctic, and tensions from Russia’s activities in Ukraine and other geopolitical contests have seeped into the region’s politics.”

Russia no longer takes part in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, a forum sponsored by the US European Command, a military headquarters. Permission for US officials to take part in multilateral conferences attended by their Russian counterparts must now be sought at a higher level in Washington than before.

Even so, the CFR notes signs that cooperation between the two countries continues. For example, Russian observers joined their counterparts from Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Norway in observing a search-and-rescue exercise conducted by the US Coast Guard with assets from United States Northern Command, another a military headquarters, in the Arctic last summer.

The CFR likens the current situation in the Arctic to space toward the end of the Cold War, where mutual interest impelled the US and the former Soviet Union to cooperate, despite their confronting each other in Europe and the Middle East. “The same principle should apply to the Arctic,” the CFR report says.

Economic necessity prods Russia to be co-operative, the report says. Before the West punished Russia with sanctions for interfering in Ukraine in 2014, the output of the Arctic Circle, principally energy, accounted for 22 percent of Russian GDP and of its exports. “The Arctic may be the US’s fourth coast, but it’s Russia’s number one coast,” Weitz said.

Russia also needs the technology and capital of Western companies, including from the US, for a new wave of exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic. The CFR report says 95 percent of Russian natural gas and 75 percent of Russian oil already comes from the Arctic. The International Energy Agency estimated in 2014 that Russia would need to invest $100 billion a year for 20 years to modernize its energy industry.

Both countries have strengthened the military forces that protect their zones of the Arctic in recent years. They have also deployed submarines, aircraft and armored vehicles near the Arctic Circle to take part in maneuvers. But Weitz downplays the significance of such exercises, saying they are “within historical norms.”

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