In February 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin staged a ceremony at the Kremlin to honor scientist Artur Chilingarov as a “Hero of the Russian Federation.” Months before, Chilingarov, also a politician, piloted a small submersible to the seabed, 14,000 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean, to collect samples and data. Before surfacing, he planted a titanium version of the Russian flag. After the mission was completed on August 7, 2007, a jubilant Chilingarov boasted over the world’s wire services: “The Arctic is Russian.”
Canada’s officials knew nothing of the expedition, and Americans dispatched a research icebreaker out of Seattle days later. A spokesman sneered, “I’m not sure whether they’ve put a metal flag, a rubber flag, or a bed sheet on the ocean floor. It certainly to us doesn’t represent any kind of substantive claim.”
The frozen Arctic Ocean, half the size of the United States, typically receives scant attention, but this summer President Donald Trump put it on the media map by suggesting that the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark. The proposal made no sense and was roundly ridiculed. But while Trump was thinking about real estate, his Administration was concentrating on hegemony: This summer, American officials firmly planted their flag across the entire region.
In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set forth his Northern Doctrine in a speech to an assembly of the Arctic Council, attended by countries with Arctic borders— Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. In blunt terms, he put Russia and China on notice for militarizing the region and chastened Canada, describing its claim of sovereignty over the Northwest Passage as “illegitimate.”
Underlying this newfound interest is that fact that scientists predict that in 25 years the ocean will be ice-free in summer months. This will open up resource development and navigation along three routes linking Asia and Europe: The Northeast Passage, or the Northern Sea Route that transits mostly Russian territorial and internal waters and offshore Norway through the Barents Sea; the Northwest Passage, which transits the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and coast of Alaska; and the Transpolar Route across the North Pole, beyond the territorial waters of Arctic states.
The Transpolar route won’t be navigable anytime soon, but Russia’s route is viable because it is already ice-free much of the summer and hugs a somewhat populated coastline. Commercial traffic from China is already transiting the route, and billions of dollars are being invested into navigational, search and rescue, and icebreaking capabilities. The route shaves 20 days off the Asia-Europe journey for cargo ships by bypassing the Suez or Panama Canals.
This has piqued the interest of both the Pentagon and the State Department. For the United States, the non-military concern is that the Russians will create a transpolar logistical monopoly to deliver liquefied natural gas, goods, and commodities to Asia and Europe. This would allow Moscow to exclude or gouge competitors. The military concern is that Russia is boosting its military presence along the sea route, while China lurks nearby.
Surprisingly, Pompeo took a swipe at Canada’s claim of control of the Northwest Passage on the basis of “a long-contested feud” with the United States. But there is no “long-contested feud,” from the Canadian viewpoint. Since the 1950s, the two allies have agreed to disagree for political reasons as to whether the route runs through internal Canadian waters or solely through international waters. The two have maintained an amicable working arrangement with respect to access, as well as shared security responsibilities as members of NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
Pompeo’s bluntness surprised many, and a Canadian government spokesman pushed back politely: “Canada and the U.S. have differing views regarding the status of the Northwest Passage under international law,” said Guillaume Berube, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The situation is well managed, including through the 1988 Arctic Co-operation Agreement, according to which the U.S. government seeks Canada’s consent for its icebreakers to navigate the waterways. Canada remains committed to exercising the full extent of its rights and sovereignty over its territory and its Arctic waters, including the various waterways commonly referred to as the Northwest Passage. Those waterways are part of the internal waters of Canada.
But the underlying agenda was to discourage Canada or China or anyone else from joining forces to develop the Northwest Passage. Pompeo accused Beijing of “planning to build infrastructure from Canada, to the Northwest Territories, to Siberia.” To Canadians, this was also news. There has never been such a plan announced, and to suggest otherwise is puzzling. Bilateral cooperation between Canada and China has been troubled for years and ground to a halt in December 2018, when Ottawa arrested a Huawei executive on a U.S. extradition warrant. China has retaliated by arresting and holding two Canadian businessmen hostage in a Chinese jail, cancelling billions of dollars in food imports, and refusing to return Prime Ministerial phone calls.
What is true, however, is that China has worked feverishly to get a piece of the Arctic action wherever it can. It has built icebreakers and special cargo ships for the Russian route, has a stake in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas plant, and has invested in four mines in Greenland and one in Canada. But further incursions have been stymied. In 2017, Denmark nixed a Chinese mining company’s bid to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland, and in spring 2018 Canada rejected a $1.14-billion bid by a Chinese company to buy Canada’s largest construction and infrastructure company, presumably Beijing’s intended platform for Arctic development.
Altogether, China has invested about $90 billion in the Arctic, working with the Russians, building Arctic-worthy icebreakers, building a polar research institute in 2009 in Europe, and financing scientific expeditions to the Arctic. In 2014, it became an observer on the Arctic Council and began describing itself as a “near-Arctic state.” But Pompeo dismissed this out of hand: “There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists—and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
Trump’s Greenland gambit made headlines but was merely the musing of a real-estate developer in the White House. Pompeo’s pronouncements, however, revised the world order concerning the world’s largest unexploited region. Leveraging its military might, Washington has put Moscow on notice, and frozen China in its northerly tracks—and Canada, too. It was a message heard ’round the world: The Arctic is not Russian; it is American.