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The Arctic: The Next Theatre for Great Powers Competition


In his maiden speech at the 11th annual Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Arctic, “an arena of global power and competition.” This statement signaled a newfound recognition and focus of the challenges in the Arctic.


The Arctic's polar ice caps are melting away, rapidly altering the utility of the predominantly icy region. While Global Warming threatens the ecosystem, it has also uncovered a completely new set of economic opportunities previously unachievable. Because of this, nations have begun to engage in a modern gold rush over the region’s unclaimed territory, natural resources, and strategic position. There has been an increase in unclaimed ocean and land territory, beyond any nation’s control, over which countries are attempting to gain jurisdiction for purposes, such as resource extraction and trade routes.


A 2018 National Aeronautics and Space Administration report estimated that the Arctic has lost 21,000 square miles of sea ice per year in the last five decades, opening up more territory on the narrowing strip of land for controlling and cultivating. Control over Arctic territory has given nations the ability to settle it, extract resources, and establish military outposts, making legal rights and claims over such territory incredibly valuable. Crossing over the pole cuts upwards of a third off a voyage from Asia to Europe depending on the origin and destination seaports and the route taken. Shaving distance saves time, fuel and wear-and-tear on hulls and crews. Small wonder shipping firms are salivating at the prospect: shorter routes cut costs and boost the bottom line.


Control over the arctic is not just economic, but strategic as well. The Arctic sits at a critical position between North America and Eurasia, making it a powerful strategic position from which to project military strength.


The incredible value of the Arctic has raised global competition tensions between the US, China, and Russia. It will be important for the United States to look at this problem holistically, using all the instruments of national power.


A few months before Secretary Pompeo’s speech in Rovaniemi, China released its first white paper on the Arctic strategy entitled, “China’s Arctic Policy & the Polar Silk Road Vision.” In this paper, China staked its claim on this strategic economic and national security region. Further, it declared itself as the “near-Arctic state” as a way to link its relations with the arctic, since, factually speaking, China is neither an arctic country nor does it border the Arctic Sea. China also unveiled the ambitious “Polar Silk Road” component of its grandiose Belt & Road Initiative.


Both Greenland and Iceland are the centers of a diplomatic tussle between the United States and China. The American concerns about the Chinese investments in the mineral resources of Greenland, geothermal energy in Iceland, and a joint project with Finland to develop a “data silk road,” are evident in its policy papers and diplomatic behavior.


Russia, too, has designs on this region. In 2014, Russia opened a new Unified Strategic Command (in Russian, Obedinonnye Strategicheskoe Komandovanie—OSK), called “OSK Sever,” to strengthen the security of its vast Arctic borders and secure its Arctic interests. The Kola Peninsula remains the crux of Russian military establishment in the western Arctic, for securing its strategic interests and for power projection capabilities in the Atlantic Ocean and beyond. Russia claims to have built 475 new military sites, including bases north of the Arctic Circle, as well as 16 new deep-water ports. It secures this presence through sophisticated new air defense systems and anti-ship missiles.

In 2018, the Russian military jammed the GPS telecommunication channels during a major NATO exercise, “Trident Juncture,” in Norway. Further, the Russian bases in the Kola Peninsula and NATO bases in Norway are separated by just a few kilometers. The possibility of a future clash is further intensified by the fact that out of the seven Arctic States aside from Russia, five are NATO allies (the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway) and the other two (Finland and Sweden) are NATO enhanced opportunities partners. Thus, the century-old tensions between Russia and the United States will continue to threaten Arctic stability.


The US and Nordic countries will attempt to negotiate differences using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty. It is an international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) “submissions or bilateral agreements,” which took place between 1973 and 1982. It is important to find an agreement that gives common ground for all parties to resolve a dispute. Part of the problem lies in the fact that China and Russia have already signed the UNCLOS treaty but the United States has not, thus creating a credibility issue when the United States is trying to convince China to obey international norms. The new Biden administration could enhance our position by approving this United Nations resolution which could become the foundational document for negotiations.


There will be several institutions - academic, political, journalistic - that will monitor what China and Russia attempt in this region. Although multiple institutions will monitor data points for a long time, it is critical that over the next 5 years data is collected and synchronized into a strategy to gain a competition advantage over China and Russia. Failure to do that will put the United States behind and without the ability to catch up in this Artic competition. Although these organizations will continue to write about the Arctic great powers competition, true analytical value will come from linking the data points into metrics and then synchronizing strategic plans to activities both on the ground, and at sea, as well as assisting with strategic messaging. Currently, there is no single agency that has built a structure to map all the data points with a layered systemic approach that can be correlated to look at a larger picture.


i3CA is changing this. We are able to take random data and to correlate it graphically, and by using pattern analysis to display commonality across the operational environment. Furthermore, this data can be used to find causality of current actions, as well as guide future steps. This information will be critical in strategic decision making for both the Department of Defense and for the instruments of national power (DIME) as we approach great powers competition.


Let's take our strategic messaging and our information operations as an example of synchronization. It is important to understand the operational environment by gathering information from experts in multiple fields of study of the Arctic environment. Additionally, it is important to understand the Department of Defense architecture, exercises, and strategic planning at both the classified and unclassified levels. During strategic planning, different lines of effort are developed which have intermediate military objectives under these lines of effort. In the information environment it will be important to understand each player’s interest (Russia, China, Nordic countries, Artic countries, Canada etc.) in the Arctic region. Understanding the mode of communication from each of these countries (radio, TV, Internet, formal/informal, country negotiations etc.), as well as measuring both public sentiment and each country’s “will” to work with one another will give the ability to measure the effectiveness of the information programs. A detailed analysis will be ready for the national security professional community that looks deeper into different topics and areas of studies mentioned in this article.One quick example is answering the question; Does the recent decision for the U.S. to sign the Paris Climate accord affect Artic GPC and does the Biden administration executive order to suspend new permits on federal land affect GPC?


The answer to both is “YES”! Russia will continue to use natural resources to bolster economic growth while creating a greater dependency on Europe for Oil and Natural Gas from Russia through pipelines. This not only affects the direct economic competition between the US and Russia, but also affects the ability for NATO countries and other European countries to become less dependent on Russian natural resources. More will be addressed on this topic in a broader global discussion on the underlying risk of decisions such as the Paris Climate accord.


i3CA delivers the capability to layer the environment, build metrics, and conduct both classified and unclassified strategic planning assistance to enable strategic level decision making while also providing long term metrics that enhance assessment boards and evaluation criteria. This modeling process allows for each section of government or DOD to enhance awareness on changes in the environment by every “player” in the competition model.


The Arctic is not a theater on its own but rather a region that is linked to the greater effort globally in great powers competition. The ability to apply pressure and take advantage of US position enables leverage in other areas of the world. Failure to immediately put significant effort towards building the Arctic environment significantly affects the chance to have an upper hand down the road. In the next two years, there will be agreements between China and Russia pertaining to some of the Nordic countries with port facilities, logistics, and military-to-military relationships, as well as building systems that deal with how communication flows throughout the Arctic. Any delay by the United States will be detrimental.

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