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On Thin Ice: Why the United States Needs to Invest in the Arctic

Scientists and Coast Guard swimmers test the integrity a melt pond on sea ice in the Chukchi Sea on July 9, 2010, before drilling holes through which instruments can be deployed to collect data. The research is part of NASA's ICESCAPE mission onboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy to sample the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the ocean and sea ice. Impacts of Climate change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) is a multi-year NASA shipborne project. The bulk of the research will take place in the Beaufort and Chukchi SeaÕs in summer of 2010 and fall of 2011. Photo Credit: (NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

The global community has proven sluggish in responding to climate change, but nations have been quick to position themselves to prosper from its effects. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic. As global sea temperatures rise, the once solid block of northern ice melts, damaging countless ecosystems but also providing access to previously-inaccessible oil, natural gas, and rare metals. The United States Geological Society estimates that the Arctic contains 13% and 30% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves, which presents a significant potential for Russian economic expansion. Revenue from oil and natural gas extraction accounts for 50% of Russia’s federal budget, and Russia, by nature of its geography, has claim to over 66% of natural gas reserves. Moreover, melting ice creates new northern trade routes that could significantly reduce shipping costs for countries like China. Yet, while China and Russia have invested significant resources into building influence in the Arctic, the United States has largely ignored the region. An increase in US investment in the Arctic would permit small-scale alignment with both China and Russia independently, mitigating the likelihood of a Sino-Russian stranglehold on the region.

The United States’ military strength in the Arctic is considerably less than that of Russia, which greatly limits its influence. Russia’s new Arctic Join Strategy Command recently conducted an exercise consisting of over 80,000 troops and 41 icebreakers (a type of ship necessary for movement through ice). The United States currently owns only two military-grade icebreakers, and Obama-era efforts to mitigate this icebreaker gap have been mostly defunded by the Trump administration. Though the United States is in the process of building another icebreaker, its construction will take over ten years and it will replace an outdated icebreaker. As Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft acknowledges, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now.”

Though China’s Arctic navy is currently as poorly equipped as the United States’, the Chinese government has made a concerted effort to improve its capabilities. Following in Russia’s developmental footsteps, China’s massive improvements in icebreaker speed and power technology, unveiled in the soon-to-be-christened Xuelong 2, indicate that it has the technological ability to follow through on its announced plan to create a nuclear-powered icebreaker. Moreover, China has dumped capital into Arctic states like Greenland in the hopes that such investment will yield soft power. For example, if the Arctic Council (the international agency responsible for norm-setting in the Arctic) voted on a new regulation, China’s control over Greenland’s economy could coerce Greenland into voting to support China’s interests. The recent addition of a “Polar Silk Road” into its Belt and Roads initiative, combined with its self-classification as a “Near Arctic State,” which grants it an observer role in the Arctic Council, clearly signals China’s strong intention to influence the region.

The United States should be further concerned about Russia’s military and China’s economic strength because the two appear to be cooperating in the region. Recent joint military exercises between the two countries and massive Chinese investment in Russian territory indicate a growing alliance between the two countries. Russia recently agreed to let Chinese ships pass through Arctic waters, provided that China pays for a discounted Russian icebreaker escort. Further cooperation between Russia and China could give them uncontestable control over the region. Unless the US changes course, an alliance between the only two global powers invested in the Arctic would give Russia and China the power to expand Russian borders, loosen environmental norms, and extract considerable amounts of oil and gas.

Fortunately, the United States has the power to drive a wedge between China and Russia’s budding alliance if the United States increases its power in the region. Concern about military secrets being stolen, a tumultuous history, and a dislike for the precedent set by a non-Arctic state exerting control over the region make it surprising that Russia would agree to work with China. Thus, Russia’s cooperation with China seems contingent upon mutual need, rather than a longstanding history of partnership and respect. Russia’s Energy Minister has announced that peak oil production is just three years away barring major new investment. That’s why the Wilson Center concludes that Russia absolutely needs to develop its Arctic oil capabilities if it wants to maintain production of 10 million barrels per day beyond 2020. China is willing to provide the foreign capital that Russia so desperately needs, which explains why Russia is willing to share the Arctic.

However, if the United States were to loosen sanctions on Russia and allow American investment into these oil fields, Russia would no longer be dependant on China. Moreover, such a move could possibly strengthen bonds between Russia and the United States. Though relations between the two countries would probably continue to be hostile, such cooperation would prevent Russian regional hegemony in the Arctic. The fact is that targeted investment in developments like telecommunications and search and rescue in the Russian Arctic will provide the United States with the leverage over Russia that it currently lacks.

On the other hand, cooperation with China would be significantly easier. China is incredibly interested in Alaska for energy production and tourism, so small-scale coordination in developing Alaska could provide a pathway to further cooperation. Moreover, an expansion in US icebreakers would break China’s dependence on Russia for movement throughout the region. Though both China and Russia desire a reduction in American power, they have considerable reason to distrust each other. Targeted investment in Russia, economic cooperation with China, and a buildup of our Arctic fleet would build the framework for a multipolar Arctic liberated from the control of a Sino-Russian alliance.

The geopolitical benefits to the United States in competing for the Arctic would be numerous. A buildup in US military capabilities would act as a deterrent to Russian aggression. It is considerably easier for Russia to expand its territory if the United States poses no meaningful retaliatory threat. Though American military power is unbeatable in the rest of the world, no number of troops can be effective in the Arctic if they can’t move through the ice. Moreover, a non-Arctic retaliation by the United States for an Arctic encroachment by Russia would expand the dangerous potential of a large-scale war. A buildup in our Arctic fleet is thus necessary to prevent significant conflict from erupting out of the Arctic.

Though a military buildup in the Arctic would be expensive, it would cement American influence in a future economic hotspot and prevent cooperation between China and Russia. All countries need to invest in a long-term plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. With such a solution unlikely, the United States must adapt to a changing world, adjusting its strategic forecasts to plan for rising temperatures and a hotter geopolitical landscape. The Arctic is the first battleground opened by climate change, but it won’t be the last.

Photo: ICESCAPE Mission

About the Author

Jackson Segal '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Jackson can be reached at