Evidence: Recently Added
First, the U.S. has repeatedly emphasized that territorial disputes should be addressed multilaterally and has repudiated efforts, led by the Chinese, to address problems with individual Southeast Asian nations. As pointed out by the Center for New American Security, however, American arguments in favor of multilateralism are “robbed of moral authority” when the U.S. refuse to support the most comprehensive mechanism for multilateral resolution of maritime disputes. By not ratifying UNCLOS, American arguments regarding the region’s most complex issues are all too easily left open to rhetorical attack by those opposed to multilateralism. More importantly, it betrays a dangerous ambiguity about America’s commitment to opposing unilateral solutions.
By just about any measure, Russia is an Arctic superpower. It has an enormous coastline, a significant number of people living above the Arctic Circle, six nuclear-powered icebreakers in the region, and industrial centers in Nikel and Norilsk (which produce a high volume of industrial pollution).
Russia used to play up this status, staging large-scale annual conferences, graced by President Vladimir Putin’s presence. Not anymore, and it is not just the fallout from the Ukraine crisis that has poisoned that climate of cooperation. Russia has experienced two major setbacks in its vision for “conquering” the High North.
The first setback came from the seriously reduced value of the natural resources that are presumed to be hidden in the depths of the Arctic shelf. Putin’s lieutenants—including Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia—loved to engage in speculations about the fierce competition for access to the rich oil and gas fields that were certain to be discovered there. The problem is not only that the U.S. and EU sanctions have made it impossible for the state-owned oil giant Rosneft to continue the exploration of Arctic seas. (Sanctions prevent the import of technology and know-how, and U.S. companies—such as Exxon Mobil—who had worked in partnership with Rosneft have left.) The real problem is that estimated production costs and low oil prices add huge liabilities to any off-shore project.
The second disappointment has to do with international maritime transit along the Northern Sea Route (called Sevmorput in Russian). Many politicians in Moscow expected that climate change would shrink the Arctic ice, increase the commercial viability of a shorter connection between China and Europe, and provide useful employment for Russian icebreakers. The problem is that the old Soviet infrastructure along the Sevmorput is so rotten that navigation in the difficult northern waters remains too risky. Egypt, in the meantime, has swiftly constructed the New Suez Canal, which offers a far more reliable route for tanker and container traffic.
Many are skeptical of deep-sea mining's supposed benefits, and its environmental implications are relatively unknown. Nautilus has hired the environmental consulting firm Earth Economics to try to assess how a seabed mine might compare with a terrestrial mine. The analysis, released last month, compares likely impacts of the Solwara mine with three terrestrial mines of similar proportions -- Bingham Canyon in Utah, Prominent Hill in Australia, and the proposed Intag mine in Ecuador.
The analysis found that, unlike with terrestrial mines, there aren't issues like community displacement, use of freshwater supplies, erosion, or loss of land for other uses like food production, recreation, or cultural and historic conservation. Deep-sea mining would cause a loss of habitat and genetic resources, affect air and water quality, and use energy and raw materials, according to the analysis. But the overall environmental impact of deep-sea mining would not be as severe as that of an onshore mine, the analysis said.
The report also predicted that demand for copper, for wiring and other needs, is likely to continue, and neither land-based mines nor recycling are likely to supply enough.
Maya Kocian, a senior economist at Earth Economics, said the firm was cautious in taking on the analysis. Earth Economics normally studies the value of parks and recreation areas, she said. "Nautilus had to come to Seattle to convince our board to do it," said Kocian. "There was hesitation to move forward."
In the end, Kocian said, the firm found that there would be environmental impacts, but the comparison yielded interesting findings.
Politically, the time may be right for the White House to secure the necessary two-thirds majority necessary in the United States Senate to ratify the treaty. Concern about China’s assertiveness in its near seas appears to bear currency across the aisle, with both Democrats and Republicans seeing it as a primary problem. The administration should approach the issue of ratification from the angle of the U.S.-China relations, opting to avert a derailment of the debate on how UNCLOS impacts U.S. sovereignty. Indeed, between the first draft of the treaty in 1982 and its signing by President Bill Clinton in 1994, UNCLOS changed considerably, aligning itself with U.S. interests.
The good news is that both the Obama administration and senior U.S. military leaders recognize the urgency of UNCLOS ratification in bolstering the United States’ position in the Asia-Pacific. A year ago, Obama noted, “It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it – despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security.” Similarly, back in 2012, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations called on six U.S. four-star generals and admirals to testify on the issue — they were unanimous in their support of U.S. ratification.
The optics of Chinese maritime assertiveness have grown more visible since 2012, and especially since last year. When Obama made his last major public push for ratification, China wasn’t actively pursuing what amounts to an attempt to bolster its claims to these disputed features within the rubric set out by UNCLOS. We’ve already seen that China may be the one thing that Senate Republicans find more distasteful than the current U.S. president, if the political alignments of the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate are anything to go by. The South China Sea issue, fortunately, is less dicey for Senate Democrats, who should be able to rally behind their president as well. With the exception of a few Tea Party and far-right anti-multilateralism holdouts, the months between now and January 2017 should finally permit an arrival at the long-sought two-thirds majority.
The treaty would officially give U.S. fisherman priority over stocks adjacent to the American coast, and the U.S. Navy would continue to navigate the globe unimpeded. But the U.S., almost alone, has never ratified the treaty it sought and needed, despite the efforts of every President since, because the rule is so customary that it goes mostly unchallenged.
Those who oppose ratification believe that regardless of whether the U.S. is a part of it or not, the Treaty, in binding others, provides the ground rules the U.S. seeks generally and now needs in the Arctic. This is a delusion.
Without the U.S. ratification of the Treaty, which would greatly support its integrity, the agreed upon 200-mile zone deal is under great stress around the world. The South China Sea is a prime example where the 200-mile zone deal is threatened as China claims much more, and the Arctic Ocean will be another. The U.S. must be able to legitimately defend its interests; It could challenge the encroachment of others as a ratified member of the treaty.
It should be noted that while it is true that Putin’s assumption of power did usher in a more assertive tone in Russian foreign policy, it is also the case that his tough talk of Russian power and sovereignty may be largely for domestic political benefit. The new “sovereigntization” of Putin’s language or foreign policy rhetoric has been useful for him as a way to coalesce popular opinion around the current power structure (Giusti 2013, p. 2). Pavel Baev confirms that sentiments about Russia “conquering the north” resonate with the Russian public (Baev 2010, p. 7). But, despite the tough rhetoric about Arctic military patrols and the protection of Arctic sovereignty, Baev (2010, p. 7) argues that Russia’s maritime military capabilities in the North have actually diminished in recent years and so the cost of militarization in the Arctic would be prohibitively high. For this reason, Baev suggests that Russia – somewhat involuntarily – may be more likely to opt for strategies that favor the demilitarization of the region. Even though Russian naval power is stronger than that of most of its neighbors in the region, it is costly to maintain.
Baev (2010) further argues that part of Russia’s interest in “going North” may be explained by a desire to consolidate a national identity that has been somewhat rudderless since the end of the Cold War. The connection between national identity and the decisions leaders take is often difficult to measure, but when it comes to disputed national territory – sovereignty – the link becomes more visible, perhaps because sovereignty disputes may be perceived to have more at stake, given the connection between the idea of the nation and the land on which it sits (Manicom 2013, pp. 62–63) Deciphering the connection between national identity and high- level foreign policy decisions is even more challenging in Russia, as many of the country’s key security debates do not take place in the public domain (Atland 2011, pp. 273–277). Those debates that do become public are often of a symbolic nature (Atland 2011). Flexing Russian sovereignty in the Arctic feeds an appetite for the reaffirmation of post-Soviet Russian power. Putin, as president, embodies this power (Roberts 2013, pp. 137–138), and he has managed to transform the Arctic into a “flagship for nationhood” (Laruelle 2011). Putin’s symbolic projec- tions of Russian power have elevated his status as a strong and decisive leader, which he has been able to benefit from politically.
Russia’s 2013 Foreign Policy Concept expresses Russia’s desire to become a “bridge between Europe and the Asia Pacific” (Giusti 2013, p. 1). Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has struggled to retain its great power status in the eyes of other nations; so much of Russian identity has been wrapped up in external perceptions of Russian power (Malcolm et al. 1996, pp. 33 – 37). In support of this goal, Russia has gone to great lengths to promote institutions in which it enjoys a dominant position, owing to its status as a major power. It therefore makes little sense that Russia would undertake actions to deliberately undermine the organizations in which it possesses this leverage. As the legal successor to the Soviet State, Russia possesses a powerful veto on the UNSC which affords it tremendous power, beyond that which it would probably otherwise enjoy. Unsurprisingly, a stated goal of Russian foreign policy has long been to empower the UN and thereby its own role within it. Russia has been able to use this leverage to support its own interests (most recently in defending the much-maligned Syrian regime in the face of inter- national pressure to end its civil war and remove its dictator, Bashar al-Assad) and also as a poten- tial means of soft balancing against other powers. Some argue that Russia has chosen to use its position in the UNSC to thwart American initiatives, for example on Iran and North Korea, as a way of soft balancing against the presumption of American hegemony. Regardless, its support for the UN and its processes is a means for underscoring Russian power in the present system.
In support of this, the Foreign Policy Concept prioritizes, “international law, including, first of all, the UN Charter” (Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation 2013) and notes that the UN should retain its role as the “principal organization regulating international relations”. With respect to the Arctic, the Concept notes that Russia will establish, in accordance with inter- national law, the outer limits of its continental shelf to provide additional opportunities for the exploration and development of its mineral resources. The Concept notes that the “existing inter- national legal framework is sufficient to successfully settle all regional issues through negotiations, including the issue of defining the external boundaries of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean”. The document places emphasis on the Arctic Council as an appropriate forum for hand- ling regional issues and it stresses the importance of multilateral decision making, as long as the independence, sovereignty and jurisdiction of Arctic nations are respected. Special mention is made of the importance of the Northern Sea Route – a Russian national transportation line in the Arctic that is open to international shipping – to the development of the region. Moreover, Russia was a signatory of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration in which Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States renewed their commitment to working cooperatively under inter- national law (Byers 2009, p. 89).
The fact is, the Arctic is becoming a zone of increased military competition. Russian President Medvedev has announced the creation of a special military force to defend Arctic claims. Last year Russian General Vladimir Shamanov declared that Russian troops would step up training for Arctic combat, and that Russia’s submarine fleet would increase its “operational radius.”55 Recently, two Russian attack submarines were spotted off the U.S. east coast for the first time in 15 years.56
In January 2009, on the eve of Obama’s inauguration, President Bush issued a National Security Presidential Directive on Arctic Regional Policy. It affirmed as a priority the preservation of U.S. military vessel and aircraft mobility and transit throughout the Arctic, including the Northwest Passage, and foresaw greater capabilities to protect U.S. borders in the Arctic.57
The Bush administration’s disastrous eight years in office, particularly its decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and deploy missile defence interceptors and a radar station in Eastern Europe, have greatly contributed to the instability we are seeing today, even though the Obama administration has scaled back the planned deployments. The Arctic has figured in this renewed interest in Cold War weapons systems, particularly the upgrading of the Thule Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar in Northern Greenland for ballistic missile defence.
The Canadian government, as well, has put forward new military capabilities to protect Canadian sovereignty claims in the Arctic, including proposed ice-capable ships, a northern military training base and a deep-water port.
Earlier this year Denmark released an all-party defence position paper that suggests the country should create a dedicated Arctic military contingent that draws on army, navy and air force assets with ship- based helicopters able to drop troops anywhere.58 Danish fighter planes would be tasked to patrol Greenlandic airspace.
Last year Norway chose to buy 48 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets, partly because of their suitability for Arctic patrols. In March, that country held a major Arctic military practice involving 7,000 soldiers from 13 countries in which a fictional country called Northland seized offshore oil rigs.59
The manoeuvres prompted a protest from Russia – which objected again in June after Sweden held its largest northern military exercise since the end of the Second World War. About 12,000 troops, 50 aircraft and several warships were involved.60
Jayantha Dhanapala, President of Pugwash and former UN under-secretary for disarmament affairs, summarized the situation bluntly: “From those in the international peace and security sector, deep concerns are being expressed over the fact that two nuclear weapon states – the United States and the Russian Federation, which together own 95 per cent of the nuclear weapons in the world – converge on the Arctic and have competing claims. These claims, together with those of other allied NATO countries – Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway – could, if unresolved, lead to conflict escalating into the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”61 Many will no doubt argue that this is excessively alarmist, but no circumstance in which nuclear powers find themselves in military confrontation can be taken lightly.
What is certain, however, is that the Russian Arctic-based Northern Fleet is continually “stalked” by American (and perhaps British and French) fast-attack submarines from the moment the Russian sub- marines leave port. While, as noted above, the number of Russian “boomer” patrols has sharply declined since the days of the Cold War, the underwater games of “cat and mouse” continue as before, and several near-collisions have been reported as the Russian subs become increasingly successful in shaking off their American “tails.”54 The Cold War is not entirely over beneath the rapidly melting Arctic ice, and Russia’s nuclear submarine bases north of the Arctic Circle are yet another powerful signal that the Russians intend to enforce their claims in the Arctic. So, while the prospects of major progress on U.S.- Russian bilateral disarmament have never been brighter, the gradual rebuilding of the Russian Northern Fleet’s roster of ballistic missile submarines and the ongoing mission of American SSN’s to track them aggressively has meant increased rather than decreased U.S.-Russian naval competition.
The Pentagon realizes the Strait is vulnerable. “‘The simple answer is yes, they can block it,’” stated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey on January 8, 2012.34 For the past twenty years, Iran has invested heavily in the asymmetric capabilities needed to bypass the more powerful U.S. fleet and disrupt merchant shipping and threaten naval forces in the Strait. Iran has concentrated on acquiring naval mines, fleets of heavily armed speedboats, and powerful anti-ship cruise missiles, secret- ly situated along the bottleneck.
The regular Iranian Navy is relatively professional, and it operates an aging conventional surface fleet that is the remnant of the Shah’s constabu- lary force. The more politically favored and far less predictable Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN), however, is the country’s guerilla force at sea. The IRGCN has responsibility for security in the Strait of Hormuz, and since the early-1990s, it has invested heavily to keep U.S. forces off balance.35 The highly ideological IRGCN has 20,000 personnel and 5,000 Revolutionary Guard Marines.36 These forces regularly exercise war plans to close the Strait. The force operates from bases at Bandar Abbas and Qeshm along the Strait, practicing small boat swarm exercises against international shipping traffic with as many as forty boats.37
Iran’s naval inventory includes cruise missiles (generally first generation Chinese copies of the French Exocet missile and the indigenous Nasr missile), marine mines, Kilo- and Yono-class submarines, and Peykaap fast attack craft, the latter of which are armed with cruise missiles and torpe- does. These proxy forces are dispersed and mobile, and have mastered swarm techniques to overwhelm more powerful foes. More than a decade ago, a classified Department of Defense war game concluded that agile swarms of IRGCN speedboats could inflict major damage on the U.S. Navy’s powerful warships in a conflict. In the game, the United States lost sixteen major warships, including an aircraft carrier, to swarms of enemy speedboats.38