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The Arctic: China wants it; We need to deny them

Coast Guard icebreaker Cutter Healy. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Brian P. Hagerty/CGC Healy)
September 08, 2020

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As Arctic ice melts, two new trade routes will cut by 30% the time for goods and commodities shipped between Asia and Europe.  This, plus the trillions of dollars worth of natural resources in the Arctic will set off a fierce competition between the United States and our allies against our strategic competitors, Russia, and China.

Russia is an Arctic state and a member of the governing Arctic Council.  They have a seat at the table and every right to exploit what is theirs.  China is a different story. We need to curb China’s access and deny them the natural resources.

China is already on the move.  They have sent icebreakers into the Arctic, and it’s navy regularly conducts Arctic patrols, even though it has no territorial claims.  Why?  Is China’s goal to stick a finger in our eye?  After all, we regularly engage in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.  Isn’t turn about fair play?

No, it is far more nefarious. Based on its observer status in the Arctic Council, China in 2018 declared itself a “near-Arctic state,” and asserted it’s right to conduct scientific research, pursue economic resources, and play an active role in the governance of the region. China sees the Arctic as part of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, and has called it the “Polar Silk Road.”  This is part and parcel of China’s aggressive pattern of predatory economic exploitation.  They want nothing more than to grab natural resources at our expense.  We cannot let them.

There are several actions we can take to better position ourselves, but the overarching goal should be to make sure we control access to the Arctic between Alaska and Russia.

First, we need to increase our military presence in the Arctic, which means we need a larger navy, especially icebreakers.  We have two (both under repair) with an additional six planned (Russia has 40 and is expanding their fleet; China is also building them).  We also need strategically placed deep-water ports in Alaska and perhaps also in Greenland or Eastern Canada near the Arctic Circle.

Second, our NATO allies are well versed in the Arctic operating environment.  We have let that capability slide in the past 20-30 years.  We need to perform more joint training in extreme weather conditions and make sure that we work toward interoperability and multiple mission capabilities.

Third, we need to increase the number of our facilities in the Arctic in order to monitor what is happening there.  In addition to existing radars and airfields in Alaska, we need more aviation assets, to include drones.  Perhaps building a NORAD North with the Canadians, complete with new satellites and beefed-up electronic surveillance, would be a possibility.

A bold and unexpected move to consider would be to expand our territorial claims in the Arctic.  This will allow us to better define shipping routes, and provide us access to additional natural resources, rather than allow China to try to obtain them.  We should consider doing this in concert with our Arctic allies, who could likewise expand their claims.  This would put China in a real bind.

The Arctic has historically been the realm of the Arctic states, and it should remain so.  Retreating ice has caused China to develop an Arctic strategy to take advantage of the shortened sea routes and natural resources that will soon emerge.

For the immediate future, there will be little change in the Arctic, but, beginning a decade from now, tension will increase due to China’s attempts to insert itself into the search and development of natural resources there.  Now is the time for us to commit ourselves and put in motion the plans and resources necessary to blunt China’s aggressive mercantilist tendencies.


Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.