On April 22, the US Coast Guard released an analysis entitled “Arctic Strategic Outlook“. The document, which came two months before the Pentagon is expected to release its updated vision for operations in the region, argues that “changes in regional geopolitical competition, economic drivers, and the physical environment required the Coast Guard to take a fresh look at our existing missions, activities, and strategic objectives in the Arctic”.
“The Arctic’s role in geostrategic competition is growing, in large part because reductions in permanent sea ice have exposed coastal borders and facilitated increased human and economic activity. The warming of the Arctic has led to longer and larger windows of reduced ice conditions,” the document says. “From 2006 to 2018, satellite imagery observed the 12 lowest Arctic ice extents on record. This has led to greater access through Arctic shipping routes.”
The US Coast Guard claimed that the country’s “strategic competitors” – China and Russia – are gaining advantage of the current situation and expanding their influence in the region. The US side also compared the situation in the region with the South China Sea where Beijing established a network of defense structures allowing to challenge the US influence.
“In recent years, China has declared itself a “near-Arctic” state and is pursuing a Polar Silk Road plan with a range of Arctic infrastructure activities to include ports, undersea cables, and airports. These plans are supported by the construction of a second multi-mission ice-capable ship, the announcement that it will construct a nuclear-powered icebreaker, annual deployments of research vessels into the Arctic, and investments in vulnerable communities. China’s attempts to expand its influence could impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic as similar attempts have been made to impede U.S. access to the South China Sea.”
“Russia dominates the Arctic geography and possesses the corresponding dominant surface capability and infrastructure. As an Arctic state, Russia has legitimate sovereign interests in the region, including navigation safety, search and rescue, and environmental protection. However, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to use its power globally to coerce other nations around the world in an effort to expand its sphere of influence. Additionally, the Russian government continues to expand its icebreaker fleet, which is already the world’s largest. They are also rebuilding and expanding other Arctic capabilities and infrastructure, including air bases, ports, weapons systems, troop deployments, domain awareness tools, search and rescue resources, commercial hubs, and floating nuclear power plants. As a strategic competitor, the United States must take heed of Russia’s actions and potential dual-use of its capabilities. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Russian Border Guard have a history of practical cooperation and should endeavor to maintain that collaboration within a framework of mutual respect for established international rules and national sovereignty.”
The US Coast Guard document as well as recent remarks by US top officials regarding the situation in the Artcic show that Washington is aiming to expand its efforts in this very region in the nearest future. In particular, in February, Adm. James Foggo, the commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa and Joint Forces Command Naples, de-facto called to limit Russian sovereignity and over its northern territories. The control over the North Sea Route, which mostly heads through Russia’s exclusive economic zone, was among the goals proclaimed by the admiral.
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