Tensions in the Arctic are heating up as Russia, China, and the United States begin to compete for their interests in the region. As Arctic ice melts, the area is becoming more lucrative for shipping routes, energy and mineral extraction, and military activities.
Since 2007, Russia has significantly ramped up its military presence in the region, adding several military bases in the Arctic, and prioritizing the production of modern ice breakers, many of which are capable of being weaponized. In 2018 China started claiming that it is a “near-Arctic nation”, despite its northernmost point being more than 900 miles from the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless, China has played an active role as an observer state to the Arctic Council, and has demonstrated a clear interest in the region; ramping up investment in key European nations within the Arctic region.
On May 20th, the Arctic Council held a ministerial meeting in Reykjavik, resulting in several key changes. Firstly, the chairmanship of the council was passed from Iceland to Russia who will hold the role for the next two years. Secondly, the Arctic Council’s Strategic Plan was adopted, which is consistent with the Council’s focus under Iceland’s leadership as it emphasizes conservation and sustainability. It can be expected that the Council will tone down its conservation and environmental activities under Russian leadership, as a large portion of Russian energy extraction is within the Arctic Circle.
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration is favoring environmental restrictions in the Arctic. On June 1st the administration announced that it would suspend oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are several ongoing disputes within the administration on various other drilling sites in Alaska as the administration pushes to end the energy extraction efforts made by the Trump Administration.
By limiting American companies to extract oil and gas from these areas, the Biden Administration is limiting American energy capabilities, while Russian energy companies go relatively unrestricted. This foreshadows that the administration could also move to restrict the extraction of rare earth minerals by American companies.
The Arctic contains an estimated one trillion dollars worth of rare earth minerals. The extraction of these materials are of great strategic importance especially considering that China dominates the global market for these critical minerals which are necessary for the production of nearly all electronics and mobile devices.
However, the Biden administration has made it very clear that the Arctic is on their radar. In his remarks at the Coast Guard’s commencement on May 19th, President Biden said “And in the Arctic, the Coast Guard is the prow of American presence in the region, rapidly growing in strategic importance as ice recedes and new sea lanes open.” He also said, “we need modern ice breakers, yes, but just as critically, we need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those Allies and partners who share our values.”
It is certainly a good sign that the President recognizes the need for a stronger Arctic fleet; Russia currently has 50 icebreakers, some nuclear-powered, and some equipped with military capabilities. The United States only has two, and only one is fit to sail.
But are these just empty words? The budget proposed by the Biden administration increases the Navy’s budget by almost four billion dollars, but some experts say that key areas like the commissioning of vessels are still underfunded. It is yet to be seen if Biden’s budget will allow for the commissioning of modern icebreakers that Biden called for, and additional support vessels that would push back against Russia’s rapid military growth in the region.
In a Joint Press Availability with the Icelandic Foreign Minister, Secretary Blinken said “The United States wants to make sure that [the Arctic] remains a region free of conflict and full of cooperation, where countries act responsibly, where economic development and investment take place in a sustainable and transparent manner that respects the environment and the interests and cultures of indigenous communities.”
The United States and its European counterparts in the Arctic Council have continued to emphasize the importance of enforcement of and abiding by international law in the region, which is particularly critical as Russia and China push to make strategic gains in the region. However, to stick to this intention, the United States must have a formidable fighting force in the region. Unless the Biden administration acts to increase US naval power in the region, this will not be achievable.
The Biden administration has acknowledged that the tension in the Arctic has grown to the point that the US cannot ignore it anymore. To protect America’s strategic dominance and national security, the Biden Administration must act on its rhetoric and show the world that it takes the rising tension in the Arctic seriously.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.