Climate change is altering the physical and security landscape in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and much faster than many climate scientists expected. Arctic sea ice has steadily declined over the last 30 years, and the ice cap has retreated roughly 40 percent. The melting of sea ice has prompted the nations with Arctic Ocean coastlines—the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland)—to reassess their interests in the region, while driving interest from countries as far away as China, India, or even Singapore.
Many experts believe that climate change, coupled with technological advances and rising global demand for resources, may uncover vast economic potential in the Arctic. An Arctic free of ice could mean billions of dollars in investment for energy production, shopping, and fishing. However, the melting ice will also create new security concerns, as countries like China and Russia increase their regional military presence. It is important that the U.S. assume a leadership position, and assist Arctic nations in developing rules and norms for the unique challenges the region poses.
ASP’s Arctic research aims to better understand the challenges and opportunities of an opening Arctic. The research will focus on three major areas: great power competition, climate and energy security, and American competitiveness and leadership.
The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy established “great power competition” as the top priority for the Department of Defense. The strategy clearly labeled two states–China and Russia–as the primary competitors to the US. China’s and Russia’s interests in the Arctic are well known. How the U.S. navigates an opening Arctic in the face of great power competition will define American national security strategy in the coming decades.
The Arctic is a new security domain because of climate change. The opening of the Arctic means there will be more maritime traffic, more resource exploration, and more military investment. That means that the U.S. military should invest in projecting power, ensuring freedom of navigation, and strategic communication systems capable of operating that far north.
An ice-free Arctic also means the exposure of undeveloped natural resources. Due to advancements in technology, deep seabed drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic is now technically possible. Minerals and other natural resources may provide strategic value for U.S. military weapons and electronics development. It is important, however, that the U.S. not rush to develop these resources before rules for the road are established.
An opening Arctic provides ample business opportunities for American companies. It is critical that American companies demonstrate stewardship of the Arctic and establish best practices for commerce, tourism, and natural resource exploration. In doing so, American companies demonstrate leadership and can ensure the Arctic is developed safely and ethically.
The Arctic has moved to the center of world affairs, even if policymakers don’t know it. What was once a frozen ocean is now a venue for oil and mineral exploration, cargo transit, and even tourism. The Arctic should not become the Wild West. The U.S. must assume leadership to ensure the Arctic is not militarized, is used safely, and developed ethically. If the U.S. is not engaged and leading the way, another country–Russia or China–will, undermining U.S. national security.