THE Arctic is getting busy. Russian icebreakers, troops and aircraft are ploughing its ice fields, opening up new shipping lanes and establishing fresh footholds as the ice retreats.
And China is getting in on the act, too.
It’s all because of climate change.
New ports are being opened and shorter shipping routes exploited. And some 13 per cent of the world’s untapped oil reserves — and 30 per cent of its gas — is believed to sit beneath the North Pole’s surface.
The race for dominance over this final frontier has already begun.
But, when it comes to the United States, the top of the world is off the radar.
It’s an issue not even mentioned in President Trump’s National Defense Strategy, released earlier this year. It wasn’t an raised during his Helsinki meeting with President Putin.
It’s absence has not gone unnoticed in the halls of US power. Nor among the rest of the world.
“We cannot afford to ignore what is unfolding in the Arctic,” California Rep. John Garamendi, the top Democrat on the subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, said last month. “The United States must embrace this challenge, for if not, rest assured other nation-states, friend and foe alike, will fill the vacuum.”
That’s exactly what’s already happening.
“Of particular note are Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North. Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined, and is building more with distinctly military capabilities,” stated Admiral Harry Harris, then US Navy Commander of the US Pacific Command, on March 15.
Where Russia has numerous ports, airfields and major cities — the US has next to nothing. Apart from some isolated Alaskan outposts, the US is virtually isolated from the North Pole.
Key allies such as Canada and Norway, however, are in the front line.
“If there was a major incident, we wouldn’t even be able to send ships there to handle it. We don’t have helicopter assets there,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Arctic expert Heather Conley told the Washington Examiner .
And, like President Xi in the South China Sea, Putin has begun to militarise his contested Arctic outposts. The greatest threat now is Russia could assert expansive territorial claims and claim swathes of the Arctic Sea as its own.
Moscow has already annexed Crimea and occupies parts of Georgia: both are moves that have prompted a variety of international sanctions and retaliation.
But Putin remains determined to restore Russia’s ‘great power’ status.
In March, Russia’s defence minister confirmed its polar bases were back in use.
“For the first time since Soviet times anti-submarine aircraft flights have been carried out via the North Pole towards the North American continent,” Sergei Shoigu said.
FORTRESSES OF ICE
Cold War era air and land facilities are being revived, renovated and expanded. The reason given is the same as that of Beijing for its illegal South China Sea island fortresses: search and rescue.
And, like the South China Sea, the Arctic base runways are capable of handling bombers as efforts to build up ground and missile defences are well under way.
“Russia is already putting special forces, surface-to-air missiles in parts in the Arctic,” Conley says. “We need to assess that and see what US military posture should be to reflect that change.”
US Army Commander of the US European Command General Curtis Scaparrotti said Moscow was revitalising its northern fleet and its bases ‘in anticipation of increased military activity’.
“Russia is increasing its qualitative advantage in Arctic operations, and its military bases will serve to reinforce Russia’s position with the threat of force.”
General Scarparrotti warned Russia likely intended to assert sovereignty over the shipping lanes in violation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“If you look at what they’re putting into place, they would have the capability, in perhaps two or three years, to control the route, if they chose to do so,” he said.
“Our two nearest peer competitors, Russia and China, have both declared the Arctic a strategic priority, and they continue to aggressively develop the capability, capacity and expertise to exert influence and seize opportunities in the region,” Admiral Charles Ray, vice commandant of the US Coast Guard.testified at the June hearing.
This is already true for economic opportunities.
In August last year, a Russian tanker was able to carry its cargo of liquefied natural gas from one side of the Arctic to the other — without the assistance of an icebreaker.
It was a world first.
Many more such trips are set to come.
President Putin has always insisted Russia must control this new trade highway — even though international law puts major shipping lanes outside the domain of any nation. His Kremlin backers have even gone so far to insist only Russian ships must ply these waterways.
After all, Russia’s territories encompass some 50 per cent of the Arctic coastline.
But China has also declared itself to be a ‘near-Arctic state’ — even though it has no coastline there.
CHINA AN ARCTIC POWER
Beijing regards the new trade routes as a ‘northern silk road’ to be exploited under its program of expanded international influence — the Belt and Road Initiative.
So its begun to invest, heavily, in new infrastructure to exploit this traffic.
Earlier this year Beijing issued a White Paper detailing its Northern Sea Route plans.
It sees the unfolding shipping lanes to the north of Russia as a ‘shortcut’ to Europe.
Travel times would be slashed. Fuel bills culled.
International trade would benefit.
China wants a slice of the profits. Not to mention the freshly exposed Arctic resources.
This has Russia worried.
It fears Beijing is planning to muscle-in on its claims, relegating its status to one of ‘younger brother’.
But Beijing is pressing ahead. It’s building its own ice-capable ships. It’s investing in Russian cargo shipping companies. It’s establishing drilling platforms in waters Moscow arbitrarily claims as part of its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Originally published as Putin’s race to ‘annex’ North Pole