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US lagging behind in Arctic arms race

Washington has never regarded the northern area as a strategic priority, while Russia and China are plowing resources into the region

Last year, a Russian tanker sailed from Norway to South Korea through the Arctic Ocean, the first time such a ship had done so without an icebreaker escort.

It was a defining moment in the opening up of frozen northern trade routes - and it looks to have supercharged an already intensifying arms race .

Washington had never regarded the area as a strategic priority; the area has been seen as falling within Russia's sphere of influence. Now China is stepping up its plans to become a major player in the region.

Last week, China issued its first White Paper on its Arctic strategy, pledging to work closely with Moscow to create an Arctic maritime counterpart to its One Belt, One Road overland trade route to Europe.

The Kremlin and Beijing have repeatedly said their ambitions are primarily commercial and environmental, not military.

Washington, however, is increasingly suspicious and - aware it risks falling behind - the Pentagon has been reviewing its Arctic strategy.

Last May, it was revealed that Washington was considering fitting anti-ship cruise missiles to its latest icebreakers, a major departure from these vessels' main research and rescue role.

Russia's military expansion in the Arctic Circle far exceeds that of any other nation.

Moscow has plowed resources into its northern defence, including creating or reopening six military outposts and building three nuclear icebreakers to add to its 40-strong fleet.

Russia's Northern Fleet will also receive its own raft of new investment, including two icebreaking corvettes designed to carry anti-ship missiles.

Moscow regards its northern waters as a "bastion" in which to hide the nuclear ballistic missile submarines it would rely on to deter foreign attack.

While submarines might be able to penetrate such waters undetected, Moscow's defences would make it all but impossible for any surface shipping to survive near its territory in war.

China's first indigenously-built icebreaker, Snow Dragon 2, launched in December and will operate alongside its namesake, built by Ukraine for Beijing and put in service in 1994.

Neither of the Snow Dragons is believed to be armed but that could easily change.

But it is the commercial potential in the Arctic that may be more significant. And it is an area in which the US looks even more likely to be left behind.

Russia is the only country with enough icebreakers to reliably escort other shipping through periodically frozen waters, giving it influence over regional shipping patterns.

The US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic may hold more than a fifth of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves.

Russia has been staking its claims there for more than a decade, using submarines to plant flags on the ocean floor.

China's increasing appetite for the region is also significant. Canadian experts were shocked to see the Chinese White Paper categorising the Northwest Passage as an "international strait."

Canada has long claimed that area as its "internal waters".

China said it believed any disputes should be handled through "friendly consultations". But that hasn't been enough to ease concerns.

The US may never have to fight a war in the Arctic. But it may find itself eased out of what could become an important region without a fight. - REUTERS

The writer is a Reuters global affairs columnist.

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