SPECIAL REPORT: Non-Military Factors Shape Arctic Power Balance
This is part 2 of a 2-part special report on the Pentagon’s Arctic strategy.
Establishing a military presence is only one side of the coin to gaining influence in the Arctic region, according to one analyst. Besides establishing a military presence, there are also economic and diplomatic factors that must be taken into consideration.
For example, most of China’s focus in the region is based on economics, said Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The country has made significant investments in shipping and transportation infrastructure in areas such as Iceland and Greenland, she noted.
“I wouldn’t consider China to be a military threat in the Arctic,” she said. “All of that is very much focused on economic potential and not on any form of military engagement.”
Additionally, much of the ice is melting in places that fall within Russian territory. Because of this, the United States has limited say in operations around important areas such as the Northern Sea Route, she said.
In addition to fielding icebreakers, the U.S. could extend its influence by making a scientific claim to an area beyond its exclusive economic zone with a continental shelf extension, she noted. This means the United States could extend the seabed in which it has the sovereign right to minerals and oil. But this would require signing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which Washington has yet to do, she noted.
“The U.S. not only has a limited engagement in anything within Russian waters and the Northern Sea Route, but it also has a limited engagement in what they can do beyond its own 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone,” she said.
However, it is unlikely that the United States will decide to sign the UNCLOS pact, she noted.
“Arctic advocates like Sen. Lisa Murkowski have continuously tried to champion becoming a signatory,” she said, referring to the Republican lawmaker from Alaska. However, “it hasn’t gotten much traction with a Republican majority,” Herrmann added.
Additionally, during a May meeting with the Arctic Council, the United States did not sign an agreement meant to establish a sustainable way of managing the region to counter global warming.
“That is seen as weak in the Arctic,” Herrmann said. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo reportedly declined to sign the agreement over disagreements regarding global warming.
This means “that we are seen as a non-cooperating power and that we don’t have as much influence in those forums because we aren’t seen as a good strategic partner as we have been in the past,” Herrmann said.