America’s top naval commander in Europe looks at the geostrategic challenges of the warming High North.
As the United States celebrated Independence Day last week, the ballistic missile submarine USS Alaska arrived for a port visit to Faslane, Scotland — home to a Royal Navy submarine base strategically situated near a gateway to the Arctic Ocean. This rare visit by an SSBN upholds our nation’s special relationship with the United Kingdom and our ironclad commitment to NATO and our partners in the North Atlantic. It particularly underscores our Navy’s presence in the Arctic, where warming seas are creating new geostrategic challenges.
We must pay particular attention to the improved capability of Russia to project power into the region, especially in light of Moscow’s aggressive and destabilizing actions in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Russian forces have reoccupied seven former Soviet bases in the Arctic Circle and built two new ones: the Trefoil base in Franz Josef Land and the Northern Clover base on Kotelny Island. Last October, Russia jammed the GPS signals of NATO warships participating in Exercise Trident Juncture off Norway the alliance’s largest since the Cold War.
More recently, Russia has made alarming statements that appear to question the freedom of the seas in the Arctic. In March, the Russian government enacted a policy to require foreign governments to provide 45 days of advance notice for transits of sovereign immunity vessels along the Northern Sea Route, which connects the Kola Peninsula and the Bering Strait. The new law also requires foreign warships to embark a Russian pilot as well as provide details about the vessel, a clear violation of sovereign immunity. Russian officials have also said they may bar innocent passage through the territorial sea for any reason, and they have threatened to sink any craft that defies Russian mandates while sailing the NSR.
Restrictions such as these are inconsistent with international law. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 45, clearly states that there should be no suspension of innocent passage through straits used for international navigation. Moreover, warships have immunity from state jurisdictions other than their own, though they must comply with all laws and rules of a state’s territorial sea — that is, waters within 12 nautical miles of its coast.
If Russia attempts to enforce beyond what the Law of the Sea allows, it could set a dangerous precedent for the entire international community: powerful coastal states may amend the law because they want to and because their weapons allow them to. This would be disastrous for global trade and national sovereignty.
China, too, is seeking greater influence in the Arctic. Though it sits more than 900 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the country has long been interested in the region’s resources; in 1925, the Republic of China ratified the Svalbard (Spitsbergen) Treaty. But Beijing signaled a new chapter in its northward push with last year’s release of its new Arctic Policy. Identifying itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” China is eyeing investment opportunities that range from extracting natural resources to the commercial maritime traffic potential of the “Polar Silk Road.” China has also taken steps to strengthen its Arctic ties with Russia. At April’s International Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, representatives agreed to launch a Chinese-Russian Arctic Research Center, notwithstanding Chinese pursuit of numerous other research agreements with universities and research centers of Arctic states.
However, Russia and China remain wary partners, with differing stances on proposed Arctic governance and development. Unlike Russia, for example, Chinese officials have called for the Arctic to be treated as global commons and have advocated for unhindered passage of maritime traffic. Yet this stance is in stark contrast with their behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
As an Arctic nation, the United States welcomes the opportunity to work collaboratively to maintain security and stability in the region, and to provide the possibility of prosperity for all nations. We work with our Arctic allies and partners in numerous forums to address shared regional concerns, including fisheries management, search and rescue, shipping safety, and scientific research. Of particular note is the Arctic Council, established in 1996. In early May, the Council held its Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, where Iceland accepted the rotating chairmanship from Finland. But like the ice of the High North, we’re starting to see some fissures in Arctic diplomacy. Challenges are posed by the increased involvement of non-Arctic states: China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others. This involvement has thus far been in accordance with customary international law, but it is vital to ensure this continues.
The Council is well-equipped to confront most issues, but its mandate explicitly excludes military security. That’s where the U.S. Navy comes in — as an extension of diplomacy and a guarantor of peace and safety. The Navy sent the first submarine, USS Nautilus, to the North Pole in 1957 and has maintained a presence in the region ever since, operating in the air, surface, and undersea domains in maneuvers and exercises like the biannual Ice Exercise (ICEX) and Cold Response. The U.S. 6th Fleet routinely operates in the High North with our allies and partners to ensure the region remains stable and free of conflict. By conducting periodic military training and exercises, we gain much by working with our Nordic partners, who have a wealth of experience in northern-latitude operations and whose forces are highly skilled, technologically advanced, and interoperable with NATO forces.
It is critical for the Navy to remain actively engaged in the Arctic as it becomes more accessible, to protect the American people, our sovereign territory and rights, and the natural resources and interests of the United States and our allies and partners. The Navy will also continue to abide by and uphold customary international law. The Arctic presents a new challenge for freedom of the seas – but one we are prepared to meet. USS Alaska’s visit to the Royal Navy’s base in Clyde is merely the latest of many examples.