U.S. Playing Catch-Up In Race to Take Advantage of Melting Sea Ice in the Arctic

Political News

There’s an argument over whether the permanent Arctic Ocean ice is melting any more than normal. But what’s not in dispute is the melting of the peripheral ice on the outer edges of the Arctic Ocean. A brief look at satellite photos shows a clear reduction in what’s called the “summer minimum,” opening up tens of thousands of square miles of ocean.

This has resulted in a competition for resources and military advantage — a competition in which the U.S. is already trailing and falling further behind.

“As sea ice melts and traffic increases on the southern edges of the Arctic Ocean, governments are maneuvering in ways that mirror the great-power rivalries seen in lower latitudes,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

Russian bombers are constantly probing the newly-opened waters. And Russian warships have been patrolling near the Aleutian Islands, challenging U.S. dominance. China isn’t involved directly in the great power rivalry but is supplying Russia with satellite and electronic intelligence.

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The U.S. is increasing its assets in the region, including the addition of two state-of-the-art icebreakers. But Russia has three dozen icebreakers.

“We’re telling the world, ‘We’re up here patrolling this area,’” said the Coast Guard’s Kenneth Boda, who was captain of the Healy, the U.S. icebreaker used in the Arctic, until June. “There are certain things we don’t want you doing up here.”

The Biden administration released a new Arctic strategy in October that identified national security as the main pillar for U.S. interests in the region, ahead of the environment, economic development and international cooperation. The strategy paper said that “Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has rendered government-to-government cooperation with Russia in the Arctic virtually impossible.”

Russia held joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan last fall which “were designed to improve interoperability of the fleets and to defend eastern sea lanes and economic activity,” according to the WSJ. As Russian-Chinese cooperation increases, the challenges to U.S strategic dominance in the Arctic increase.

“Both Putin and Xi have made clear that the High North is key to their strategic interests, and it is imperative that the United States and our allies keep them from dominating this region,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The interest of China and Russia in the Arctic doesn’t just involve security. The commercial exploitation of the ice-free region means that entirely new routes between East Asia and Europe may open up in the next decade.

Warmer temperatures are opening new shipping lanes between Asia and Europe and may eventually introduce brand-new shipping routes near the North Pole. As early as the 2030s, the Arctic may be practically ice-free in September, the month with the lowest amount of ice in the year, according to a June study in Nature Communications.

Shipping companies are studying Russia’s northern coast as the shortest link between seaports of East Asia and Europe, bypassing southern oceans and the Suez Canal. A cargo ship’s trip from Japan to a port in the Netherlands could be cut by more than half, to less than 6,000 miles from more than 12,000 miles, by traveling through the Arctic Ocean.

There’s no doubt that Russia has some advantages, with its icebreakers and experience operating in an Arctic environment. But the U.S. has the edge in military technology. If those new sea routes do materialize, Russia must be prevented from trying to exert control over them as it does with its bases in the South China Sea.

And the Great Game is reborn, this time in the far north.

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