U.S. Strategic Interests in the Arctic: An Assessment of Current Challenges and New Opportunities for Cooperation
The United States must take some very concrete steps over the next several years to improve its strategic posture in the Arctic so that over the next 40 years the region is a model of regional coop- eration and not a zone of potential conflict.
The most vital step the United States must take immediately is ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). UNCLOS provides the necessary guidance and appropriate frame- work to resolve claims to an extended continental shelf in the Arctic region. To prepare itself for ratification, the United States must continue to invest funds in Arctic scientific research and explo- ration in preparation for submitting U.S. claims for extended territorial boundaries. The Obama Administration must make UNCLOS ratification a legislative priority (amongst many other competing priorities) and achieve Senate ratification as soon as possible. Should the U.S. remain outside of UNCLOS for the foreseeable future, it will find itself in a growing strategic disadvantage in shaping future policy outcomes vis-à-vis the Arctic.
Despite the slowdown, Russia continues to increase its military presence in the Arctic. The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation until 2020 stresses the importance of strengthening border guard forces in the region and updating their equipment, while creating a new unit of military forces to “ensure military security under various military-political circumstances.”78 Russia’s assertive rhetoric has been matched by a range of steps that stake its military prominence in the Arctic by developing its coastal defense infrastructure and enhancing its technology capa- bilities, which have been perceived by its Arctic neighbors as provocative and controversial. For example, Russia fired cruise missiles over the Arctic in a summer 2007 exercise; reinforced its Northern Fleet in order to perform additional exercises in the summer of 2008; tested new electronic equipment and precision weapons; and resumed Arctic patrols for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Several times during the past two years U.S. and NATO jets have shadowed Russian bombers close to the Norwegian and Alaskan coasts, particularly during and after the Georgia-Russia conflict in August 2008.
Highlighting the Arctic’s growing global importance, a number of countries with no geo- graphical links to the Arctic region but with important commercial and economic interests, such as China, South Korea, and the European Union, want to have a voice in future Arctic delibera- tions. France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have been granted “permanent observer” status on the Arctic Council, and China is considered an “ad hoc observer.” Only Arctic Council member states have voting rights, and therefore “ad hoc observer” status does not differ from “permanent observer” with regard to the influence on the decision- making process in ministerial meetings. However, “ad hoc observer” status requires that nation to apply to be admitted to each Arctic Council meeting. The European Union’s application to become a “permanent observer” was blocked in 2009 by Arctic Council member Canada in response to the European Union’s ban on the importation of seal products. This example illustrates the chal- lenges of relying on the current structure of the Arctic Council for balanced and objective rulings, which often fall victim to paralyzing squabbles and the partial leveraging of national interests. On the other hand, the Arctic Five excludes nations and indigenous peoples with legitimate interests in the region, compromising its international credibility as a comprehensive governing arrange- ment. As rifts among international governance institutions continue to emerge, to the detriment of regional policy cohesiveness, the U.S. government must clarify how it wishes to primarily proceed with its multilateral Arctic engagement, either principally through the Arctic 5 ad hoc process or through the more institutionalized Arctic Council’s effort.
Shrinking ice caps, melting permafrost, and technological advances enable greater access to the region’s abundant oil and gas reserves, which include as much as one-fifth of the undiscovered petroleum on the planet. With longer ice-free periods now available to explore for hydrocarbons, a new scramble for oil and gas could occur especially if oil prices recover to levels above $100 per barrel. In July 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that the Arctic comprises 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural gas resources, or 44 billion barrels, and 13 percent of untapped oil supplies, or 90 billion barrels. Nearly all (84 percent) of the oil and gas is expected to occur offshore, and most of the projected reserves are located in waters less than 500 meters deep and will likely fall within the uncontested jurisdiction of one or another Arctic costal state. “The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospec- tive area for petroleum remaining on Earth.”7 The Arctic already accounts for one-tenth of global conventional petroleum reserves, and the projections of the latest USGS study did not even ad- dress the potential for developing energy sources such as oil shale, gas hydrates, and coal-bed methane, all of which could be present. But with it comes the risk of increased pollution, pos- sible spills from oil and gas, and the threat of contaminating water sources during the extraction process.
However, my main purpose for focusing on national security interests was to highlight the fact that the constituency that needs to be convinced to change its position on U.S. accession to the Convention is focused solely on national security. The common thread throughout all of the 60-plus UNCLOS briefings I presented on the Hill was – what affect will accession have on our national security? We did not have to convince the shipping industry or the oil and gas industry or the environmentalists. Those groups had already expressed their support for the Convention. We did, however, have to convince conservative senators that U.S. accession would not harm U.S. national security. The same remains true today – supporters of the Convention must be prepared to demonstrate what new benefits the United States will acquire by joining the Convention that it already does not enjoy. Those benefits, however, are difficult to articulate since most of the impor- tant ones from a national security perspective – e.g., transit passage, archi- pelagic sea lanes passage, high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight and resource rights in the EEZ and continental shelf – are already guaranteed to the United States under customary international law. Therefore, while I agree with my critics that U.S. accession to UNCLOS will not have a negative effect on U.S. national security (i.e., coastal states will continue to make excessive maritime claims whether the United States is a party to the Convention or not), by the same token, failure to join the Convention will not necessarily undermine U.S. national security now or in the foreseeable future.