Are Russia and China Teaming Up to Control the Arctic?

More aggressive posturing by Russia and China in the fast-melting Arctic is raising red flags for the Pentagon.

Russia is working to quickly flex its muscle in the region through a partnership with China to build infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route, one of two major shipping lanes across the Arctic. That agreement, announced exactly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, was viewed by experts as a signal that Russia and China increasingly share economic interests in the icy polar region.

Then in August, a fleet of 11 Russian and Chinese warships sailed from the Sea of Japan through the Bering Strait into the Pacific Ocean, passing close to the U.S.-held Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast. The Russian news agency Interfax said the ships were conducting “joint anti-submarine and anti-aircraft exercises.”

“Russia has a heavy emphasis on the Arctic, and over half of it is in Russian territory,” Iris Ferguson, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Arctic and global resilience, said in an interview with E&E News. “I don’t want to suggest they don’t have a place there. But we are concerned about increasing levels of investment in Arctic military capabilities.”

Those realities require a reset of U.S. Defense Department policies in the Arctic region, including “changes in how we’re training and equipping [U.S. forces] and rethinking the kinds of operations we need to have there,” Ferguson said. Elements of those changes will be laid out in DOD’s Arctic strategy, expected to be released this month.

The document will replace a 2019 version released three years before Russia invaded Ukraine, effectively alienating itself from seven partner Arctic nations: the United States, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Experts noted China does not have territory in the Arctic but seeks access and influence in the region, something it hopes to advance through its Russian alliance.

Diplomatic relations among Arctic countries are often handled through the eight-member Arctic Council, whose chairmanship rotates every two years. Russia chaired the council from 2021 to 2023 and was shunned after its Ukraine invasion. Norway assumed the chairmanship in May.

The Biden administration is strengthening its focus on the region by creating senior positions to oversee Arctic policy, including the one held by Ferguson, who assumed the role last year. It also created a senior State Department position and named Mike Sfraga, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, to be ambassador-at-large. The Senate has yet to confirm his nomination.

After the Russia-China war game off Alaska last summer, U.S. Marines joined roughly 4,000 NATO-affiliated troops for a military exercise in the Baltic Sea. The November exercise was led by Finland, its first since joining NATO.

It came as Congress authorized $200 million in infrastructure spending at military bases in Alaska, where experts say climate warming is placing additional stress on aging facilities, which often date back to the World War II era.

The largest Alaska item in the National Defense Authorization Act is a $107.5 million runway extension at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, home to 22,000 military personnel and the Alaskan Command, including the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The Army was awarded $34 million to build new housing at Fort Richardson near Fairbanks. Eielson Air Force Base, south of Fairbanks, will receive $9.5 million to build a new dormitory to replace old, substandard, energy-sucking barracks. Eielson also is home to the Air Force’s 354th Fighter Wing, nicknamed the “Icemen,” with two combat-ready squadrons of F-35A Lightning II fighter jets to patrol the polar region.

Ferguson said the infrastructure projects will be designed and built to account for climate warming impacts like thawing permafrost. She added that her office provides new levels of coordination among individual branch services, each of which has its own Arctic climate action plan.

“Honestly, creating a crossroads for everyone to go to within the [Defense] department is pretty significant,” she said. “Prior to the establishment of our office, our outside partners didn’t have a place to go when they wanted to talk Arctic issues. Fortunately, the bulk of our partners are highly geopolitically aligned and have high levels of military capability.”

Erin Sikorsky, director of the Center for Climate and Security and the International Military Council on Climate and Security, said in an interview that the risk of open hostilities between the U.S. and Russia or China is unlikely. But tensions could rise over issues of territorial encroachment in a region shared by eight countries.

“The overarching risk I see is a warming Arctic is a busier Arctic,” Sikorsky said. “The backdrop to that is the increased geopolitical competition between NATO and Russia or the U.S. and China. I worry that the increased presence in the Arctic — both of military and commercial actors — increases the risk of accidents that could spill over into hotter conflicts.”

She also noted that with NATO expansion into the region, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joint training exercises between allied forces will occur more regularly, increasing the risk of engagement with adversaries. Finland joined NATO last year, and Sweden is awaiting approval.

“It’s important to not create a self-fulfilling prophecy of conflict,” Sikorsky said. “We should make sure the signals that we’re sending to our competitors and adversaries are not ones where we want to see the Arctic as a place to fight over.”

Matthew Hickey, associate director for the DOD-affiliated Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies, said in an interview that all changes in the Arctic — environmental and geopolitical — occur against a backdrop of “norms, rules and laws,” and that the opening of new shipping routes is one way climate change will test those norms.

He agreed that a more crowded Arctic would foster more competition for resources and routes, which in turn could stoke tensions between rival countries. A robust defense strategy that accounts for climate change alongside geopolitics will aid the Pentagon in its readiness mission.

“We can see through the monitoring of our acute and pacing threats the connection between a changing environment and geopolitical consequences, and the need to potentially elevate the importance of the Arctic,” Hickey said. “In some respects, we’re well-equipped to do that. In other areas we might consider improving upon our existing infrastructure.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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