As the Arctic is warming, the Chinese and Russian influence in this region is rising (Valantin, Arctic Fusion: Russia and China convergent strategies, 2014). Meanwhile, one can wonder if the US strategic influence is not waning.
During the last seven years, China and Russia have developed and deployed powerful Arctic grand strategies, through political, economic, industrial, technological and military means (Ding Ying, “Realizing Chinese and Russian dreams, China and Russia are determined to promote bilateral relationship to make both countries safe, strong and prosperous“, The Beijing Review, March 28, 2013). Since the end of the nineteenth century, the USA has been a prominent Arctic power (Charles Emmerson, The future history of the Arctic, 2010). Is it still the case, and will it be, during the forty years to come?
This interrogation takes root in August 2007, when a Russian scientific expedition in the Arctic launched a mini submarine, which put a metal Russian flag on the seabed of the extremity of the Lomonossov ridge (Emmerson, ibid). This move was a symbolically complex gesture. First, it expressed that the seabed was a “Russian land”, and thus aimed at asserting the extent of the Russian sovereignty exclusive economic zone.
Then, it can also be understood as a historical strategic challenge. In effect, since 1969, the only other two national flags having been placed by a great power in an extreme environment were the American Banner planted on the Moon, followed, in 2013, by the Chinese lunar rover harbouring the flag of the PRC (Universe Today, Ken Kremer, Chinese rover & lander beam back Portraits with China’s Flag shining on Moon’s Surface, December 15, 2013).
The Russian gesture was in fact announcing the deployment of a grand strategy on a par with the US space grand strategy (William E. Burrows, This new Ocean, the story of the first space age, 1998).
On the same timeline, Chinese political and economic authorities have started to deploy their own Arctic grand strategy, through a multiplication of bilateral agreements with the Arctic Nations, and the development of energy and shipping mega-projects with Russia (Valantin, The Chinese shaping of the North, 2014).
Do the USA still have an Arctic grand strategy, allowing it to sustain its Arctic great power status?
The Big Freeze?
Since the end of the 19th century, especially when Washington bought Alaska to Russia in 1867, the USA have been an Arctic power (Emmerson, ibid). The peak of the strategic importance of the Arctic Basin was reached during the Cold War, because of the geographic proximity between the continental US, Canada and the Soviet Russia. The same could be said of the NATO allies that were Danish Greenland, Iceland, and other Arctic countries, as Denmark, and Norway (Emmerson, ibid).
The Arctic Basin was especially important in its air and space dimension. The US Defence and Security apparatus was patrolling the American air and sea limits shared with the USSR with nuclear bombers, which were a major part of the nuclear deterrence system, while the Soviets were doing the same (Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, 1991). So, a network of naval, air force and surveillance bases were installed from the Strait of Bering to Greenland and Denmark (Kaplan, ibid).
The Arctic Space was notably militarized through radar and space military surveillance, with the creation of the Northern American Aerospace Command (NORAD) in 1958, leading to an integrated American/Canadian air and space security space command. NORAD’s priority mission was to alert Washington if the Soviets launched their ballistic missiles, which would have flown over the Arctic to reach US cities (Kaplan, ibid).
However, the frozen condition of the Arctic Basin was also “freezing” the possibilities of real, massive, military surface and ground deployment, turning the Arctic subsea into the scene of a permanent, deadly, and silent ballet between the Soviet and US submarines, watching each other.
When the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by the economic, social, political and strategic collapse of Russia during the following decade (Michael Thumann, La puissance russe, un puzzle à reconstituer? 2002), the Arctic lost part of its military strategic importance for the US. Since the beginning of the 21st century, NORAD has been integrated to the Strategic Command, and works very closely with the Northern Command, created after 9/11, and in charge of the defense of the homeland. Moreover, the US submarine fleet is still present and active in the Arctic, while the Northern Command organizes military training exercises and is in charge of the military coordination with the Canadian military (Stars and stripes, US Northern Command takes sole responsibility for the Arctic region, April 8, 2011).
If these are important organisational evolutions, are they quite adapted to the rapid and dramatic geophysical and strategic changes occurring in the Arctic region?
Climate change and the Russian Chinese strategic surge
Global warming is quickly and deeply changing the status of the Arctic (Joe Romm, “Arctic death spiral: cryosat reveals decline arctic sea ice decline“, Climate Progress, 2013). The increasing melting of the summer ice cap, and the warming of this huge region, which had been defined by extreme cold for millions of years, is opening new maritime passageways, notably the Northwest Passage and the Northern sea route (Valantin, The Arctic power race: the new great game, 2013). Moreover, land, sea and seabed mineral deposits, which could amount to more than 13% of the untapped oil and 30% of the untapped natural gas (Michael Klare, The race for what’s left, 2012), as well as biological species.
Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century, China has become a “near Arctic country”, multiplying political and economic ties with member states and companies of the Arctic council (Valantin, Arctic China (2), The Chinese shaping of the North, 2014), while Russia is deeply renewing its industrial, energy and military presence in this extreme region (Russia Today, “Arctic resources: the fight for the coldest place on Earth heats up“, April 15, 2014).
US strategic thinkers and the Arctic
Meanwhile, interesting and important intellectual and institutional American documents have been published about the strategic importance of a warming Arctic: e.g. the Navy Arctic Roadmap (2009), the report “Impact of climate change on naval operations in the Arctic”(2009) by the military think tank CNA, or the “US National security strategy for the Arctic region” in 2013. All of these stimulating documents state the strategic importance for the US of the changing nature of the Arctic, and how and why it opens new opportunities for great powers. However, they are not followed by real political, military and industrial action, at least until now.
In other terms, if American strategy thinkers are pointing out the importance of the changing status of the Arctic, and if the President of the United States makes some related strong statements, this intellectual trend does not seem so far to have been followed through with any planned, operating and long-lasting strategy. This creates an impressive “time and capacity gap” between the USA on the one hand, Russia and China on the other.
The latter have prepared for their Arctic deployment during the whole last decade (Valantin, ibid), while the American strategists only started thinking recently about the reinforcement of the US influence even if it is spelled out from now to 2025 (The US National security strategy for the Arctic, ibid). It must be added that, of today, the US coast guard has only two ships with Arctic capabilities and that no financial and no budgetary decision has still been made about any Arctic strategic capacity building.
However, a worldwide race to the Arctic is ongoing, largely dominated by Russia, China and their multi-layered economic, political and strategic partnership. Comparing the Russian and Chinese massive scale mobilization towards the Arctic and the US weak political, financial, and industrial involvement in this region is quite surprising, because it reveals the way the USA seem not to have an Arctic grand strategy anymore.
This crucial fact is revealed by the way the US political authorities do not give themselves the material ways and means to dominate the Arctic space and thus the Arctic future, when the Russian and Chinese governments have ordered the development of new generations of nuclear icebreakers (Stephen Blank, “China’s Arctic strategy“, The Diplomat, 20 June 2013) and, in the Russian case, of submarine with the new “Boreis” generation (Globalsecurity.org, Project 935/Project 955 Borei). This American relative absence is all the more important that, in this extreme environment, the only way to project power on a long timeline is with massive and adapted infrastructures and investments.
This has profound and unintended consequences for the US influence: as Russian and Chinese political authorities develop long-lasting presence and influence in this region, through political and economic partnerships (Valantin, Arctic China (1): The Dragon and the Vikings, 2014), the US presence and influence is on the wane.
The Russian attraction
This new reality expresses itself through the growing attraction exerted on some major US energy companies by the parts of the Arctic belonging to Russia, as shown, for example, by the talks between Texas-based Exxon and Rosneft, the Russian gas and oil giant. The two companies have decided to develop together four hydrocarbon projects in the Kara Sea, the Laptev Sea and the Chukchi Sea, and another one in the Russian Far East, known as the Sakhalin oil project (Russia Today, “Rosneft and ExxonMobil approve 4 Arctic projects“, 2014).
Rosneft and Exxon Mobil have also engaged in talks to study the way they could cooperate in Alaska, meaning that a Russian company could be working in the very territory which turned spatially the USA into an Arctic power (Anna Shiryaevskaya and Stephen Bierman, “Rosneft Expands Cooperation With Exxon in Alaska, Arctic, LNG“, Bloomberg, Feb 13, 2013).
These projects are discussed and implemented despite the tensions the Ukrainian crisis triggered between Washington D.C and Moscow (RT, ibid). This means that Russia exerts an unexpected kind of influence and attraction on the US economy and energy supply through these projects, and some others, with major US energy companies. Meanwhile Russia and China have developed very strong political and economic ties since the last twenty years, and they develop new industrial, naval and Arctic cooperation, launching their very own “Arctic pivot”.
The current geopolitical situation of the Arctic raises questions about the U.S. ability to reassert their presence and influence, on a par with the means of the powerful Russian/Chinese partnership, on its way to become the new regional “hegemon”. More important, the ever-growing importance of the Arctic and the difficulties met there by the USA questions the current American capacity to produce not a tactical or an operational answer to this gigantic challenge, but a real grand strategy.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: ARCTIC OCEAN (March 21, 2009) A lookout aboard the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) stands watch from the bridge after breaking through three feet of ice while participating in Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2009. Annapolis, along with USS Helena (SSN 725), is participating in ICEX 2009 to operate and train in the challenging and unique environment that characterizes the Arctic region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones/Released [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.