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Sep 4, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

5 mins read

The U.S. Stakes Its Claim in the Arctic Frontier

The Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) in the Arctic Ocean on March 21, 2009.
(U.S. Navy)
Forecast Bullets
  • The United States, along with several competing countries, will continue to build up its presence in the Arctic Circle.
  • To compensate for its lack of support and infrastructure in the region, Washington will rely on bilateral and multilateral agreements to protect its interests.
  • If U.S. multilateral efforts fail to maintain regional security, the Arctic could become more unstable.

The Arctic is fast becoming a more important geopolitical region, and the United States is rushing to protect its claims in it. Changing climate and meteorological conditions have opened previously inaccessible areas of the region. By the 2030s, the largely ice-covered Arctic is expected to become seasonally ice-free. While melting polar ice may be detrimental elsewhere, in the Arctic it will enable more shipping traffic to travel through the Northern Sea Route over the next decade and eventually through the Northwest Passage. As a result, mineral extraction, fishing and other commercial, military and research endeavors will increase. According to the 2008 U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic may also contain 25 percent of the world's oil and natural gas resources, of which approximately 20 percent lies in U.S. territory.

Territorial claims and oil and gas development in the Arctic

But the United States is not the only country looking to the Arctic. Several nations are trying to enhance their reach and presence in the region. Even non-Arctic states are interested, as the growing number of countries seeking permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum dedicated to addressing issues of the Arctic Circle, attests. In May 2013 for instance, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy and India obtained permanent observer status in the council.

Russia in particular is devoting considerable attention to the Arctic, enhancing its infrastructure and military presence there. Moscow already has a notable infrastructure, military, geographic and demographic advantage in the region. More than 60 percent of Arctic land area is in Russia, and over 80 percent of the Arctic's population lives in Russia. It will be difficult for the United States to match Russia's influence in the Arctic.

Limited U.S. Capabilities

And the United States is aware of its disadvantage. In May 2013, Washington released a new national strategy for the Arctic region, setting priorities to advance U.S. security interests and strengthen U.S. and allied collective interests in the region. Specifically, the United States seeks to enhance its Arctic search and rescue and military infrastructure, improve its intelligence-gathering operations in the region and work closely with its allies in resolving Arctic environmental, security and economic issues.

The U.S. military is clearly interested in the region as well. Building on the Cold War legacy of early warning radar systems laid out in the Distant Early Warning Line, the United States and Canada maintain the North Warning System in the Arctic, guarding against potential incursions across North America's polar region. Nuclear ballistic missile submarines in Russia's Northern Fleet also operate constantly in Arctic waters. So do U.S. nuclear attack submarines, which monitor Russian ports and traffic.

Still, the United States suffers from clear capacity limitations in the region. The most glaring is its all but absent icebreaking capabilities, which are critical for Arctic access. In contrast to Russia's 41 icebreakers, the U.S. government operates only three, one of which is inactive. The United States may attempt to accelerate vessel production, but even then the U.S. Coast Guard is unlikely to receive its desired three heavy and three medium icebreakers anytime soon. The United States also lacks key infrastructure that needs to be developed before it can maintain a presence in the Arctic. For instance, the United States does not have any ports north of the Bering Strait and lacks support facilities for search and rescue efforts and environmental surveillance. The U.S. Coast Guard has implored Washington to strengthen its Arctic capacity, but budget shortfalls and delays will prolong any improvements from being made.

A Multilateral Approach

In the meantime, the United States is joining bilateral and multilateral efforts with other powers with Arctic interests to compensate for its capability shortfalls and to secure its position. The United States has assumed the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council this year, and it will use the forum to mediate and safeguard its interests through multilateral agreements.

Despite considerable opposition in the Senate, the U.S. government is also promoting the need to accede to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As the only Arctic state not party to the international agreement, the U.S. government believes that its position in the Arctic is being undermined. The lack of ascension already complicates the process of negotiating and concluding consistent maritime boundary agreements. Moreover, even without being a part of the convention, the United States still upholds the convention's norms without benefiting from them, particularly in the process of delineating the outer limit of the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf in the Arctic. Using the convention's legal framework, Russia (2001), Norway (2006), Canada (2013) and Denmark (2014) have all submitted continental shelf claims to the United Nations in the last 15 years. Until Washington ratifies the convention, it will not be able to submit its claim.

The Arctic is going to continue to interest Arctic and non-Arctic states alike. The United States, though currently without certain capacities, is demonstrating a desire to defend its interests in the region. Rather than engaging in a potentially destabilizing Arctic military race with Russia, the United States is building consensus, working through bilateral agreements as well as promoting multilateral venues such as the Arctic Council to settle any disputes. If successful, the approach could keep the Arctic region peaceful. If it fails, however, it could revert the Arctic back into an unstable frontier, with more access — and the opportunities that come with it — potentially creating more risks.

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