Testimony of Andrew Holland: The United States as an Arctic Nation: Opportunities in the High North (December 10, 2014)
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Is this a rush to secure scarce resources in the High North? Will there be a new “Cold War” over disputed borders and resources. No: that threat is overblown because the legal institutions for governing territorial disputes, particularly the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, are strong and generally recognized by all parties. All recent evidence shows that parties are inclined to resolve disagreements under the principles of the law, using both bilateral negotiations and multilateral fora like the Arctic Council.
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That does not mean, however, that there is no threat of conflict over the Arctic. The danger, in fact, comes from an imbalance of attention. While the United States has largely ignored the Arctic, Russia and non-Arctic powers, especially China, have actively sought to find new geopolitical advantages in the melting ice. As the Arctic develops, it is clear there is a disparity of attention to the region, with some countries seeing it as central to their national affairs, while others, particularly the United States, pay little more than lip-service to their status as an Arctic power. It is this imbalance, and the uncertainty about the priority that the United States places on Arctic affairs, that could cause international misunderstandings or even conflict. This imbalance is apparent in the rush to resources, the promotion of new international trade routes, and—especially—the military power available in the Arctic.
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In nowhere else in the world is the U.S. Navy so clearly outclassed in its ability to perform operations than in the Arctic. Today, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) says there is no need for a U.S. Navy presence, other than the strategic patrols that U.S. Navy submarines have been doing since early in the Cold War because the DoD does not view disputes in the Arctic as a likely source of conflict.23 For this reason, there are no DoD plans for building any additional Arctic bases or deep draft ports through 2020.24
On the other hand, the Russian Northern Fleet is its largest and most powerful fleet and has conducted extensive exercises in Arctic waters along Russia’s Northern Sea Route.25 In October 2013, the Russian Air Force re-opened a Cold War-era air base on Kotelny Island, far to the east of the Northern Fleet’s home port of Severomorsk.26 In November 2013, Russia’s Minister of Defense announced plans to create a new class of ice-protected vessels to patrol their Arctic coast.27 On October 3, 2014 Russian military radar installations on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt on the Arctic Coast started operations – these installations are only 300 miles from the Alaska coast, and would be much closer to any drilling operations in US waters than any US military or Coast Guard installation.28
The three other Arctic littoral nations (Canada, Denmark, and Norway) have also demonstrated their commitment to increasing their military presence in the region, improving infrastructure and augmenting fleet and troop levels rapidly. Canada is converting a deep-water port on Baffin Island into a major naval base, building eight new vessels via the Arctic Patrol Ship Project, and considering establishing training facilities in Resolute Bay near the Northwest Passage.29 The Danish military is creating an Arctic Response Force,30 and Norway has committed to purchasing 48 F–35 aircraft “for the continued presence of core areas in the High North.”31
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In 2015, the United States will assume the chair of the Arctic Council. If the United States has not made decisions, backed by resources, on these topics before then, we will have missed a great opportunity. There is a real danger of conflict in the Arctic due to a lack of clarity about U.S. intentions in the High North. There is a danger that other countries may perceive U.S. inattention as weakness. In the absence of clear statement of policy, backed up by high-level attention and resources from the United States, there is a danger of misreading U.S. intentions about what it perceives as core interests in the Arctic. There is still time for the United States to change course. The United States is an Arctic nation: it should start acting like one.