As the U.S. Pivots East, Russia Pivots North

The Obama administration has clearly communicated a shift in the United States’ geopolitical focus to the Asian arena. While this shift is well justified, the White House should ensure it does not ignore developments in the Arctic arena.

By Jennifer Cayias
April 22, 2013

At the Shangri-la Dialogue held in Singapore last June 2012, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated that the U.S. intends to shift the bulk of its naval force to the Pacific by 2020. Later that year, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed a similar, but political, U.S. pivot to the Asian arena.

In February 2013, President Obama met with China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, and largely discussed the future development of economic relations between the United States and Asia’s largest economy. This is a significant shift in geopolitical attention, and the present administration has good reasons for taking such an interest in Asia. Militarily, the International Institute for Strategic Studies considers an arms race to be in the making as economies develop and associated defense budgets expand. By the end of 2013, India should have its own aircraft carrier, and last year China successfully landed jets on an aircraft carrier of its own. Economically, while Europe and America stagnated in recent years, the economies of Asian countries continued to grow.

Given these developments, it is noteworthy that several Asian states took such a strong interest in the Arctic Council discussions of 2012. The Arctic Council is composed of nations with Arctic territory (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden), as well as several observer nations. In theory, Asian interests should not be relevant, while Russian interests should be highly relevant, as Russia has roughly 20,000 miles of Arctic coastline and one-fifth of its landmass north of the Arctic Circle.

Nevertheless, Asian countries share a concern with Russia–namely, the northward shift of trade routes as the polar cap melts and the Northern Route becomes more navigable. China has conducted 5 Arctic expeditions since 2000 and established a research station in the Svalbard Archipelago in 2004. India followed with the establishment of its own arctic research station in 2007. South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also presented a paper titled “Korea’s Policies and Activities in the Arctic,” which identifies Korean interests in arctic logistics, resources, and petro-chemistry.

The Arctic Ocean is deceptively vast, spanning 5.4 million square miles. In comparison, Russia in its entirety spans 6.6 million square miles. While most of the Arctic Ocean remains inaccessible, the shrinking of permanent sea ice has roused global economic interest for two reasons. First, the Northern Sea Route runs from the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, and condenses the traditional “Royal Road” route by about 2500 nautical miles (approximately 10 days’ travel). If viable, the opening of this route would radically alter the transport of goods from Asian industrial hubs to Western consumer markets. According to Evgeny Ambrosov, the general director of Sovcomflot, Russia’s primary shipping fleet, this translates to about $500,000 - $600,000 of fuel savings per voyage.

A similar Northwest Passage runs north of Canada, and each route is becoming decreasingly dangerous as permanent summer polar ice shrinks.
Second, since 2009, international and United States Geographical Survey (USGS) research has indicated that the Arctic seabed holds up to 160 billion barrels of petroleum located under a relatively shallow depth of 500 feet. Less conclusive projects based on preliminary soil samples have also speculated that the Arctic seabed holds substantial mineral and metal deposits.

Moscow’s recent statements and actions indicate its intention to take the lead in controlling the diverse resources of the Arctic Ocean. As early as 2001, Russia petitioned the United Nations Commission for the Law of the Sea for recognition of the underwater mountain range, the Lomonosov Ridge, as part of Russia’s continental shelf. In 2007, Russia declared it had proven the legitimacy of its claim after conducting soil samples of the ridge and symbolically planted a Russian flag in the seabed soil.

Last year, the Russian navy deployed a new Borei class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine into its Northern Fleet, which is stationed in the area. In August 2012, President Putin announced the construction, by 2020, of several new bases along Russia’s Arctic coast. Over the past few years, Russia’s border guards have been restructured and a new Arctic force established, with two brigades stationed at NATO-member Norway’s border last winter.

In contrast, U.S. policy regarding the Arctic is outdated and lacks focus. The National Security Presidential Directive-66 on U.S. Arctic Policy, released in January 2009, is exceptionally broad, covering every possible issue relating to the Arctic region and equally vague in its prescriptions or intended actions. A policy memorandum published through the Council on Foreign Relations last year warns of the associated dangers with an increase in Arctic ship traffic. In 2011, a total of 160,000 tons of oil and 400,000 tons of gas crossed Artic waters. CFR argues that not only does the United States lose out by failing to articulate its interests and effectively direct appropriate resources, but it also fails to address the issue of regulations and safety.

The geography of the Arctic region is rapidly changing. The political climate is evolving just as quickly, involving not only Arctic states such as Russia, but also states with indirect interests in its development, such as South Korea, China, and India. The United States needs to engage itself more in this evolution and elucidate its own Arctic interests and intentions. Otherwise, it risks becoming a sideline player in an arena that is becoming just as strategically valuable globally as Asia.

Jennifer Cayias is a first-year graduate student at the American Military University, earning a Master’s of Arts in Intelligence Studies. She received bachelor’s degrees at the University of Utah in Political Science and International Studies, and minored in Russian. Her region of focus is the former Soviet sphere, particularly Russia and the Caucasus, and Turkey.

Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video via Flickr.

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