From 1 to 28 September 2019, 3000 men and women of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps are participating in the “Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise”. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command leads this exercise. The exercise takes place in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and Southern California (“Navy, Marine Corps conduct Arctic expeditionary capabilities exercise in Alaska”, CPF Navy Mil, 3 September, 2019”). Those naval manoeuvres are part of the recent U.S. military built up in the Arctic (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Towards a US China War? (1) – The New Cold War and the Chinese Belt and Road go to the Arctic”, The Red Team Analysis Society, May 20, 2019).
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Chronologically, this deployment happens after the August 2019 30 warships-strong Russian naval drill (Thomas Nilsen, “Russian navy drill in northern Norway ended without smoke”, The Independent Barents Observer, August 18, 2019).
The American manoeuvres could also be seen as a follow up to the giant NATO Arctic exercise, Trident Juncture. That Arctic exercise involved 50.000 soldiers, 150 planes, 10.000 land vehicles and 60 warships. Landing, deployment and combat exercises took place from Norway to Iceland. The NATO manoeuvres were led to demonstrate reaction capability against a hypothetical adversary that would endanger a fellow NATO member in the Arctic region (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Warming Arctic – The race to Neo-Mercantilism(s)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 12, 2018) .
However, it must be noted that, from 11 to 17 September 2018, the Russian military organised its own massive manoeuvres. Vostock 18 mobilized 300.000 soldiers, more than 36.000 land vehicles, 80 warships and 1000 planes. For the first time, the Russian political and military authorities had invited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to participate. China’s involvement confers an added geopolitical significance to this event. It demonstrates the political and military closeness of Russia and China in the face of possible strategic threats (Lyle J. Goodstein, “What Russia’s Vostok-18 Exercise with China Means“, The National Interest, September 5, 2018).
This combination of tensions and strategies has geopolitical and economic consequences for both political and corporate actors.
The warming Arctic, a great attractor for geopolitical tensions
We must closely analyse the geography of this U.S. Navy exercise, because it reveals how the rapid warming of the region triggers a new strategic and military state of play between the U.S, Russia, and China.
The centre of this state of play is the use and the status of the Russian Northern Sea Route. This maritime route connects the Bering Strait to Norway and the North Atlantic area. Since 2018, it has become a powerful attractor for the global rising strategic tensions between the U.S. and China (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Warming Arctic – The race to Neo-Mercantilism(s)”, The Red Team Analysis Society, November 12, 2018).
Those tensions are rising because of the trade war. They are converging in the different areas where the U.S. and Chinese interests intersect. Thus, this convergence heightens the risks of a “hot conflict” between the U.S., China and Russia as China’s powerful partner.
The Arctic: the new Great frontier?
The choice of the Aleutian Islands for the “Arctic Expeditionary Capabilities Exercise” is particularly telling. As it happens, this archipelago creates a natural semi circle on the Pacific side of the Bering Strait. In other terms, securing this archipelago means securing the Pacific access to the Bering Strait. Thus, it also secures the Asian entry and exit to the Russian Northern Sea Route. Being able to intervene in this area is a particularly important capability for the U.S. military, because the Chinese ship owners are increasingly using the NSR.
The Chinese polar Belt and Road
Since 2013, the number of Chinese cargo convoys that use the Russian Northern Sea Route increases (Atle Staalesen, “A Chinese-built Arctic tanker tests spring ice along remote Russian coast », The Independent Barents Observer, May 07,2019). As it happens, the rapid warming of the region transforms this passage into a navigable space (Atle Staalesen, “The warmest ever winter on the Northern Sea Route”, The Independent Barents Observer, March 28, 2019).
In the meantime, the Russian political, economic, and military authorities have launched a massive program of infrastructure, maritime and defence development for this 4500 km long area (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).
That interest lasts and further grows. For example, in April 2019, the economic development of the Russian Arctic was also an important topic during the Beijing second Belt and Road Forum. There, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin exchanged about the necessary Chinese and Asian investments for the next phase of development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) (Atle Staalesen, “Putin steps up talk with Beijing over Arctic Shipping”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 30, 2019).
Moreover, Vladimir Putin took the project to the next level. He declared that the Northern Sea Route could become part of the Chinese Maritime Belt and Road initiative. This would imply major Chinese investments. Those would further develop the logistical and, especially, transhipment capabilities along the Siberian coast (Staalesen, ibid).
Escaping the trade war?
So, for Beijing, the NSR and the European and Atlantic market outlets are becoming increasingly important. As it happens, the growing use of the NSR could become a way to mitigate the economic pressure that the trade war imposes on the Chinese economic growth despite the Chinese resilience (Amy Gunia, “China’s growth is at its lowest in almost three decades”, Time, 15 July, 2019). That is why having multiple accesses to the European market becomes so important.
Symmetrically, if the U.S. power cannot contain the development of the land B&R initiative, their rising influence on this segment of the maritime B&R is all the more important.
The U.S. Arctic: U.S. Frontier or Front?
Thus, the U.S. Navy manoeuvres in the Aleutian Island are intersecting with the Russian and the Chinese strategies. This way, the U.S. military reminds the whole Pacific region that the U.S has the capability to intervene this side of the Route.
The U.S. implements a new continental strategy of control
The same is true for the Arctic and Atlantic side of the Northern Sea Route. In this context, the 2018 Trident Juncture manoeuvres appear as being a demonstration of force between Iceland and Norway, at the Western exit of the Route.
In other terms, the U.S. Arctic military build up is literally a geopolitical pincer movement. As it happens, it reveals how the U.S. Navy is implementing a continental strategy of control of the NSR. And thus, it turns the Route into a support of the U.S. military influence over this new passageway, vital to the advancement of the Chinese interests in Europe and in the Atlantic.
Old geopolitics for a warming planet
In other words, the U.S. military might deploys itself on both point of entries of the NSR. This unveils a new age for a century long question. The U.S. founding father of geopolitics, Alfred Mahan pondered this very question at the end of the 19th century. According to him, it is possible to control the Heartland (Eurasia) through sea power, and, henceforth, to be a world power. The way the U.S. and China competition about the NSR links itself with the trade war appears as being the current form of the competition for the world island, in a time of climate change. And the U.S. military build up is a form of capability escalation, while the Chinese navy is more and more active in other parts of the Pacific.
It remains to be seen if this situation is the equivalent of a “plateau” or if it is going to become the point of support for a new cycle of escalation that could lead to war. In any case, the geopolitical and economic consequences of this shifting state of play are piling up and combining. And they need to be assessed and considered by and for economic, political and military actors.
Featured image: Adapted from Cryosphere Fuller Projection (2007) – Author, Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal. Full graphic, including sources, referencing etc are available here: http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/cryosphere – Image donated by author, no restrictions on use.