By Simonas Bingelis
The Arctic Circle is rapidly becoming a new frontier for geopolitical cooperation and tensions. What was once an uninhabitable landscape covered with impassable ice is turning into a region with immense maritime and economic potential.
Currently, there is no official governing body for the Arctic region, however, there are several loosely managed organizations, of which the Arctic Council is the most prominent. This council comprises of eight nations that border the Arctic Circle and work together to ensure maritime safety and regulations are upheld, while accounting for environmental considerations.
Nevertheless, not all nations that border or have a stake in the Arctic are operating in the region for the same interests. While most of the Arctic Council countries are cooperating on search and rescue missions, maritime regulations and the protection of indigenous communities, there are other prominent players in the region that have conflicting interests. Most notably Russia and China as a self-proclaimed “near-Arctic state.”
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In the Arctic’s dynamic geopolitical environment, there are four major drivers that will have a significant impact on the future of the region. First: historical competition between three world powers: the U.S., Russia and China. Second: environmental changes in the region that have opened a new frontier for navigation. Third: the expansion of military resources to defend a nation’s strategic interests. Fourth: new economic interest in the increased access to natural resources.
Throughout recent history, the U.S. has been fairly stagnant in its policy approach towards these impending issues. There are several overlapping policy areas that have made it difficult for previous administrations to adopt a concrete and bipartisan direction for the U.S.’ role in the region.
The Obama administration viewed the rapidly changing environmental situation in the Arctic as a prime example of climate change and its threat to U.S. national security. President Obama helped create new administrative positions to manage the U.S.’ role in the Arctic Council. In addition, Obama’s administration increased the size of federal lands in the region. Both steps were taken to bring greater public visibility to the region and to call for a greater international response to climate change.
Although the Obama Administration did a great job of emphasizing governance in the region through several different initiatives, it overlooked some of the aforementioned regional key drivers and the view that the Arctic will one day be a key economic frontier. The Trump Administration put greater emphasis on the economic development of the Arctic by cutting regulations and investing in regional resource exploration. However, the level of available infrastructure and receptivity towards Arctic economic development has been relatively low compared to the U.S.’ key competitors.
The key shortcomings over the last couple of administrations have been the inability to balance the overarching environmental and humanitarian considerations, and the increasingly apparent strategic and economic implications of regional competition. The U.S.’ reluctance to take a more assertive long-term military and economic approach has placed it at a competitive disadvantage compared to other nations.
Although the Obama Administration did a great job of emphasizing governance in the region through several different initiatives, it overlooked some of the aforementioned regional key drivers and the view that the Arctic will one day be a key economic frontier.
Over the years, Russia has developed a new strategic international energy corridor across the Northern Sea route. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “An increase in military outposts have been constructed to assist with Russia’s national security concerns. Complicating the situation are Russia’s demands for restrictive measures along the shipping route, including that all foreign warships provide advance notice and get Russian approval prior to transit. Such measures limit international access to this sea lane and challenge freedom-of-navigation rules defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea”. These decisions do little to help ease trans-atlantic tensions.
Additionally, China has emphasized its strategic interests in the region with the publication of its Arctic White Paper, investment of nearly $154 million into the Icelandic economy, development of icebreakers and many more strategic initiatives. Economic and scientific investments by Russia and China show a desire for a more significant physical presence in the Arctic.
Currently, there are few strategic initiatives by the Biden Administration to counteract Russia and China’s rapid development of the Arctic region. Although the current and previous administrations acknowledge increasing pressures from competitors, the lack of planned infrastructure in the region makes one wonder if both Russian and China will benefit as early movers.
Governance and cooperation with competitors can only be as effective as the competitors want it to be. The U.S. should continue to leverage its military alliances in the region. More specifically, the Biden Administration should balance diplomacy and also continue to invest in Arctic development initiatives. This will allow the U.S. to have a more strategic position in the Arctic, which is in the best interest of U.S. national and economic security.
Simonas Bingelis is an MBA graduate from Villanova University where he concentrated on international business, strategic management and consulting. He holds bachelors degrees in political science and economics, also from Villanova University, where he played Division I football and minored in Spanish and Russian. He has worked as an intern with both the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Enterprise Lithuania.
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