Imagine, for a moment, that you are a passenger in a space capsule with a view of the Arctic Ocean, with its polar icecap kissing the coasts of the U.S. state of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and hovering close to Russia.
That schematic map of Planet Earth’s northernmost region is vividly depicted on page 45 of the current Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions 2020-2021 study journal. The author is the Rand Corporation’s Stephanie Pezard.
This is the backdrop of an imminent meeting of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska, today. Although they’ll discuss a variety of world issues, it appears likely that the Arctic will be among them.
The polar ice cap is shrinking
“With each year,” the journal Arctic Today reports, “the risks of military confrontation in the Arctic grow due to the increased presence of military forces, more commercial activity, and environmental shifts caused by climate change.”
As the now frozen Arctic melts, navigation on its new unfrozen surface will become easier, for allies and foe alike. Its four coastal states must begin to reckon with, and even cope with, that strategic fact of life, certainly in the 2020s.
Of the four nations cited above (the U.S., Canada, Greenland, and Russia), Russia clearly has the longest coastal stretch and unfrozen shorelines, even today.
Why is China in the mix?
Dan Brouillette of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was until recently the U.S. Secretary of Energy under the Trump administration. In a letter to the Washington Post March 16, he writes:
“China’s aspirations to assert geopolitical influence in the (Arctic) region are clear. The Arctic contains vast untapped resource reserves, including oil, natural gas and the critical minerals needed to manufacture tech products and batteries.
“China’s strategy has been to use scientific research to expand its presence in the region which could include military activity in the Arctic. In fact, China and Russia have conducted joint military operations there in the past.
“As energy secretary, I initiated the formation of a new Arctic energy office within the Department to ensure a permanent U.S. presence in the region to monitor the activity of hegemonic powers such as China.”
As mentioned earlier, Secretary of State Blinken is meeting with the PRC Foreign Minister in Anchorage during his first trip abroad as the top- ranking diplomat at State. Their agenda will be a full one, but as noted, the growing strategic importance of the Arctic is likely to be among issues discussed.
The United States last year increased its presence in Greenland, a Danish territory. and re-opened a consulate there with Denmark’s approval. As the Great Decisions article puts it:
“How we and other nations with Arctic shorelines (including Alaska, for the U.S.) take into account the interests and concerns of other countries will play a key role in defining Arctic institutions for years to come in this increasingly important strategic region.”
Sherri Goodman, Marisol Maddox and Kate Guy proposed in their March 11 Arctic Today essay:
“Among the many outcomes (of a multinational conference on the Arctic) could be a code of conduct for Arctic forces, which would provide communications channels for unplanned trips by any country’s military forces to the region.
“Enshrining existing and yet-to-be norms for forces operating in the Arctic into a more formal code that all militaries in the region could agree upon would go far in bringing predictability and stability to the region.”
Wise counsel indeed, in an unpredictable world.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More