The Obama administration’s intention to shift military resources to the Pacific satisfies American objectives, including enhancing stability and bilateral relations, and, perhaps most importantly, expanding economic opportunities.
Broadening the scope of this shift, or “pivot,” as it is often called, to encompass the Arctic region furthers U.S. interests and is harmonious with existing national objectives. Indeed, the strategic doctrine underpinning the Pacific shift bolsters the compelling reasons for America to assert its rights and pursue its interests in the Arctic as well.
An invigorated Arctic focus would promote stability and the unfettered flow of global commerce to the great benefit of the U.S. economy — by far the world’s largest — as well as the economies of its friends, partners and allies. Ocean-borne trade, which accounts for the vast majority of global commerce, has more than tripled over the past 40 years.
Since 1979, the Arctic ice pack has shrunk by 40 percent, opening up the region for year-round utilization. Shipping costs will drop dramatically, and millions of square miles of seabed will be available for mineral and energy extraction, as well as fisheries access and lucrative opportunities in tourism.
Extending the U.S. continental shelf would accordingly encompass new American territory greater in size than the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska combined. The U.S. must move swiftly, as other countries are enjoying a head start.
No fewer than five countries enjoy coastal rights in the Arctic — Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia and the U.S. Already, Russia has acted rapidly to stake territorial claims that are intended to deter movement into the region by other states, as well as to claim undersea energy and mineral resources. Russia is attempting to delineate and codify an expanded Arctic Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China and others are also moving to stake out resource claims and make deals to lock up undersea resources. The U.S. must do the same.
America, however, is woefully unprepared to assert its legitimate rights and interests. The U.S. icebreaker fleet consists of one medium-capacity ship and an additional 30-year-old vessel undergoing refurbishment. This pales in comparison to the fleets operated by Russia, Canada, Sweden and Finland.
The problem is further compounded by the ongoing decline in U.S. military assets, especially naval, required to protect our established interests.
In 2007, in an unprecedented move, a Russian submarine placed a flag on the seabed of the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain chain crossing the geographic North Pole. Claiming rights to the ridge is a top Russian priority, as it would grant Moscow exclusive access to potentially tremendous reserves of oil and natural gas. In fact, the claim would increase Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone by 1.2 million square kilometers.
Russia has also established a brigade-size unit specifically to operate in the polar region, and announced its intention to shift additional forces to the polar region. Other countries will inevitably follow suit.
Securing U.S. rights in the Arctic will establish freedom of navigation and preserve the sovereignty of commercial vessels traveling the new, shorter trade route between the Pacific and the Atlantic. This aspect alone is vital to both the U.S. economy and to stability in the Pacific region.
Accordingly, the U.S. should move quickly to declare the Arctic a region of strategic interest and pursue international legal agreements to secure recognition of American sovereignty in the waters of the Arctic and the Pacific — two vast regions where future challenges can be expected. The U.S. must ensure that no state can control or impose exorbitant transit fees for ships passing through its EEZ waters.
Furthermore, the U.S. should explore bolstering its military presence in the Arctic proportionate to America’s Arctic territories — the northern parts of Alaska and sections of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas — as well as undertake scientific missions to reaffirm the basis for U.S. territorial claims in the Arctic.
There can be no doubt that the Pacific pivot must encompass the securing of U.S. rights to the Arctic region. There is no time to lose.
James Colbert, policy director at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Washington.