Cold Front: The Arctic Emerges As A New Flashpoint Of Geopolitical Challenge

On August 26 the U.S. State Department announced the creation of an Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic region. It’s the right move as geopolitical challenges in the world’s coldest region heats up.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union jockeyed for advantages in the far north. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, tensions subsided. The 1990s spirit of rapprochement between Western nations and Russia helped produce the Arctic Council, an international forum founded in 1996. Today the Council counts the Arctic-adjacent nations of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. in its membership, and plays an important role in coordinating policy. Yet throughout most of the 21st century, the Arctic has taken a backseat to the Middle East and even the Indo-Pacific as a focus of American foreign policy.

But now the Arctic is attracting more attention from policymakers. Melting sea ice has opened up new shipping routes that can allow the world’s cargo ships to cut as many as 20 days off the time of a journey from ports in the Pacific to those in Western Europe. The U.S. Geological Survey has posited that the region may contain 90 billion barrels of oil and up to $1 trillion in rare earth metals. Plentiful fisheries yielding about $500 million worth of catches per year abound, as well.

Unsurprisingly, nations of the world have moved fast to seize the opportunity. In 2018, China proclaimed itself a “near-Arctic state,” which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rightly described as preposterous. China is still 900 miles from the Arctic at its closest measurement. Russia, China’s neighbor to the north, has some 15,000 miles of Arctic border. In 2019, Russia announced plans to connect the Northern Sea Route with China’s Maritime Silk Road, establishing a new shipping channel from Asia to northern Europe. This dovetails with China’s plan to create a “Polar Silk Road” linking China to Europe through the Arctic. China, too, has invested tens of billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure, and research projects in the region. With Beijing and Moscow entered into a “no limits” partnership last February, you can bet the Arctic will be a prime locus for their continued strategic cooperation.

The military implications the Arctic are significant, as well. Controlling the Arctic allows nations to move forces across the world at faster speeds and reduce overflight times for aircraft and missiles. Consequently, Russia and China have become more aggressive in asserting control. Russia has added a new Arctic Command to its military structure and re-opened Soviet military sites. Vladimir Putin’s naval strategy places the Arctic at the center of its doctrine and includes a declaration to protect the Arctic “by all means.” China is similarly moving to flex military muscle in the region, building the world’s largest icebreaker and describing the Arctic as the “new commanding heights” of military competition. China’s Arctic-themed military activities often occur under the guise of “scientific research.” As Anne-Marie Brady of the Jamestown Foundation has observed, “Access to the Arctic is essential for the roll-out of the Beidou global navigational system, China’s rival to GPS. Beidou is crucial for China’s cyber warfare capabilities and C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance].”

Perceiving the Russian and Chinese drive to reap the economic benefits of the Arctic, and militarize it, the United States has moved to shore up its own position. In 2019, the Trump Administration explored buying Greenland from Denmark – a smart play for projecting power and accessing vast deposits of rare earth metals and hydrocarbons. The move was ridiculed in the press, but it’s not so funny now. More tactically, the U.S. Congress has authorized the construction of six new icebreaker ships. In 2020, Secretary Pompeo led the State Department to re-open its consulate in Nuuk, Greenland for the first time since 1953. The Biden Administration is still trying to figure out its policy, but the new Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic should help provide answers and bolster the momentum started in the Trump Administration.

Europe is coming along, too. The new Ambassador will find ready and effective partners in the EU’s own Ambassador-at-Large to the Arctic, the incoming Clara Gansladt, and Josep Borrell, the EU Foreign Minister. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently visited the Canadian Arctic to reaffirm the region’s importance to Western security. His recent op-ed observed, “Authoritarian regimes are clearly willing to use military intimidation or aggression to achieve their aims. At the same time, they are stepping up their activities and interest in the Arctic.” The recent accession of Arctic Council members Finland and Sweden to the NATO Alliance will also strengthen the hand of freedom-loving nations in the Arctic. The members of the Arctic Council have also boycotted Russia’s chairmanship this year as a result of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia will not be able to use the Council to advance any of its plans for the Arctic.

The trajectory of the West’s focus on the problem is a healthy one, but more work is necessary. Fortunately, on Tuesday, October 11 the Hudson Institute’s China Center will host a conference, “The Dragon in the North: Assessing the Growing Chinese Threat to the Arctic Region”, with a keynote speech by Hudson Distinguished Fellow and 70th Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo. Hudson Senior Fellow Dr. Arthur Herman and China Tech Threat Co-Founder Dr. Roslyn Layton will moderate panels with the world’s leading experts on China’s march toward the Arctic.

Originally published in Forbes.