While war is brewing in the North on Game of Thrones, a very real conflict is heating up in the Arctic Circle.
The Arctic region’s economic importance has increased in recent years. The Arctic is home to vast reserves of natural resources; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic. The Arctic is also home to the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, both of which are key shipping-lanes that cut shipping times off the Suez and the Panama canals. For a while, these resources and trade routes were inaccessible due to the perennial ice. Climate change has changed all of that.
Obviously, as the planet has continued to heat up, the Arctic ice has continued to melt. According to Julienne Stroeve of University College, the percentage of perennial ice (the thick ice that serves as the primary obstacle) that covers the Arctic has plummeted from 70 percent to 20 percent in the last three decades. The most sophisticated modelling indicates that the Arctic will have ice-free summers by 2020.
The thaw has resulted in many new economic opportunities. Drilling for oil and natural gas could become commercially viable in the near future, if it isn’t already. In a cruel twist of fate, the corporations most responsible for climate change will benefit from climate change the most. Perhaps the greatest development is the opening of new sea-lanes. In August 2007, it became possible for ships to go through the Northern Sea Route without icebreaker vessels for the first time in history. A ship’s journey from Europe to East Asia would be shorter if it took the Northern Sea Route than it would be if it went through the Suez, cutting travel times by almost a third.
The Arctic gold rush has been accompanied by a wave of Arctic competition. The problem with opening new resources and trade routes is that people tend to fight over them. Like the South China Sea, various countries in the region are starting to stake claims, and these claims often conflict with each other. Even non-Arctic nations are trying to get in on the action; China has no Arctic territory yet it spends more on polar research annually than the U.S. and has built the largest non-nuclear icebreaker in the world.
The competition over the Arctic is not entirely peaceful. The fight over sea-lanes and natural resources has caused the region to become heavily militarized. Russia has been leading the charge in this regard, establishing the largest military presence in the area. Moscow is currently constructing ten air-defense radar stations, 16 deep-water ports and 13 airfields along its Arctic coast. Russia is also preparing two brigades trained specifically for Arctic warfare. Russia’s Northern Fleet controls two-thirds of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered ships. Russia’s impressive Arctic might was demonstrated by a military exercise this week that included 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. In order to control and coordinate all these military assets, Moscow has commissioned a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command, which has the same legal status as Russia’s four other military districts. Indeed, Jane’s Defense Weekly pointed out that “NATO recently warned that no other country has better prepared its forces for operations in the region.”
Russia’s buildup in the Far North is not purely defensive. In 2014, the Russians announced that they had completed work on an application to the UN to gain an extra 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic territory. Their last submission to the UN was rejected in 2007, and there is no guarantee that the UN will accept Moscow’s claim this time, especially given the conflicting Arctic interests of several other countries. Given Putin’s history with Ukraine, it is unlikely that Moscow will refrain from forcefully annexing Arctic territory if they are rejected by the UN.
Meanwhile, the United States is woefully behind Russia in the race for the North. The United States only has five icebreakers (one of which is inactive and rotting away in Seattle), with one more planned. In contrast, Russia has 37 icebreakers with four under construction and eight more planned. Furthermore, Russia has several nuclear icebreakers (which are far more powerful than conventional ones), while the United States has none. It seems like America wants to bury its head in the snow and pretend that the new cold war doesn’t exist. Just days before Russia started its massive military exercise in the Far North, US Special Representative for the Arctic Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr stated that Washington does not think that Russia is militarizing the Arctic. This flies in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.
One of the obvious solutions to the problem is to simply combat global warming. If the ice doesn’t melt then there will be nothing to fight over. However, much of the damage has already been done and it is unlikely that climate change will be curbed enough to avoid a struggle over the Arctic.
In the long term, a diplomatic solution must be reached between all parties involved. There are currently no treaties that deal with the Arctic’s natural resources or trade routes. The only international Artic treaty presently in place concerns search and rescue responsibilities, not geopolitics. The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) gives countries exclusive economic rights up to 200 nautical miles from their coast. Much of the Arctic and its resources lie beyond anyone’s exclusive economic zone, creating a “donut hole” that belongs to no one. This situation needs to be rectified through a multilateral treaty as soon as possible. In order to facilitate such a treaty, the United States should ratify UNCLOS. Failure to do so means that the United States can’t stake its own Arctic territorial claims nor can it weigh in on Arctic disputes.
In the short term, the United States needs to beef up its presence in the Arctic. Russia’s superior military capabilities ensure that any diplomatic negotiations will be skewed heavily in Moscow’s favor. In diplomacy, the guy with the biggest stick tends to get what he wants.
The United States should immediately develop the Alaskan coastline by constructing infrastructure and bases. More importantly, the United States should build additional icebreakers, including nuclear-powered ones. In order to cut down costs, the icebreakers should be exempt from the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. This law forbids government-owned ships from being built by private or international sources. As a result, American icebreakers cost more and take longer to build than Russian or Chinese icebreakers.
While the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region have received the vast majority of American foreign policy attention, the Far North has been left in the cold. The United States needs to break the ice surrounding its Arctic policy soon, or face the consequences.