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Foreign Policy

U.S. Frames New Arctic Policy

Apr 28, 2021
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR

Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced the introduction of the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, which calls for the U.S. government to mobilize all strategic, economic and diplomatic tools to launch a comprehensive strategic competition with China.

If passed, this will deeply affect the Biden administration's policy toward China. In particular, in terms of regional diplomatic strategy, the act sets out a clear policy framework for reshaping U.S. leadership in the Arctic region, for dominating regional security governance system and for countering Chinese efforts to project economic, political and military influence into the Arctic.

The act has three key highlights:

First, it defines the Arctic geographic boundary for the first time as 66.56083 north latitude and designates possession of territory, or exclusive economic zones, north of that latitude as constituting “eligibility” for Arctic nations to be there. The act clarifies the U.S. policy position recognizing the eight members of the Arctic Council as “Arctic nations” and opposing other states’ claims of Arctic status.

Second, the act outlines the scope of Arctic security and clarifies that the Arctic region security policy of the United States covers both traditional and non-traditional security modes. It singles out the “militarization of the Arctic” as a new challenge to U.S. national security, arguing that the intensification of military activities there by certain countries poses a serious threat to Arctic peace and stability and threatens the interests of U.S. allies and partners.

In addition, in light of inadequate capacity to patrol increased ship traffic, as well as limited search and rescue capacity in the region, the act emphasizes protection of Arctic ecosystems and highlights the possible discovery of new, sensitive species.

Third, the act identifies the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs of the U.S. State Department as the lead agency for developing and implementing U.S. Arctic security policy, in coordination with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, embassies, other regional bureaus and relevant offices. The mission is to identify and protect U.S. national security interests.

The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs will designate a deputy assistant secretary serving within the office of the deputy assistant secretary for Arctic affairs, who will be responsible for facilitating the development and coordination of United States foreign policy in the Arctic region, strengthening regional cooperation and providing data and information on commercial shipping, environmental science and climate change.

Based on the Trump administration’s Arctic policy, the act outlines the U.S. position on Arctic security governance and establishes a management structure for security affairs that reflects three new trends in U.S. competition with China:

• The act makes clear that Congress believes security risks exist in the Arctic, and that the “militarization” of the region and “strategic great-power competition” are the main sources of risk. In essence, it confirms the basic judgment of the Trump administration’s several Arctic strategy documents about the regional geopolitical situation and consolidates the basic goal of U.S. policy from “cooperation and protection” to dealing with “great-power competition.”

The act reflects a high level of bipartisan consensus in Congress on Arctic issues and basically sets the tone of the U.S. Arctic policy, indicating that the policy has shifted from merely outlining to detailing approaches, and from specifying China as a competitor to determining exactly how to compete with it.

In addition, the act will profoundly affect the security policies and positions of U.S. allies and partners in the Arctic region, including Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Finland, and will have spillover effects affecting the overall regional situation.

Second, by unilaterally defining the Arctic region and determining which nations qualify as Arctic nations, the legislation establishes a U.S.-led, eight-nation governance system, emphasizes the main position of Arctic nations in maintaining regional security and stability and encourages bilateral and multilateral cooperation in the region.

In particular, the act proposes for the first time to develop a multilateral governance mechanism for the management of Arctic maritime lanes and the transit of non-Arctic nations’s vessels in the region. It examines the possibility of reconvening the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum and promotes the construction of an Arctic security cooperation mechanism, marking a major step forward by the United States toward creating a regional security governance mechanism.

In addition, the U.S. intends to engage in closed-door governance in the Arctic, prohibiting extraterritorial countries from demanding a voice and vote on security issues and directly targeting the claim of China as a near-Arctic state. The U.S. is also trying to block China’s influence in creating and operating an Arctic security governance system.

Finally, the act makes clear that the U.S. Department of State should be responsible for formulating security policy. It establishes a two-tier mechanism with an assistant secretary of state taking the lead and a deputy assistant secretary of state specifically responsible for diplomatic matters. This structure is designed to reflect the Biden administration’s policy of returning foreign affairs to professionals, correct the Trump-era tendency to emphasize military force over diplomacy and stop things such as presidential tweets expressing a desire to buy Greenland and the secretary of state’s indiscriminate accusations against other countries from happening again. The idea is to promote the return of order to U.S. Arctic affairs.

It also indicates that the future of U.S. Arctic governance remains focused on shoring up areas of weakness in diplomatic presence and engagement; emphasizing security cooperation with Norway, Denmark, Iceland and other European Arctic countries; using U.S. foreign aid funds as leverage to develop specific mechanisms to review the security risks of Arctic research and economic cooperation projects with China; and curbing China’s rising influence in the region.

For example, the act requires the administration to “counter Chinese efforts to project political, economic, and military influence” in the Arctic region; make a priority of U.S.-Canada strategic cooperation; and submit a detailed proposal no later than 90 days after the act is signed into law.

Arctic security governance is a regional issue, but it is also an integral part of global ocean governance, and the international community has a shared responsibility, common interests and a shared future. This unilateral act by Congress, based on pure pride and prejudice, is intended as a closed-door approach to governance. It is particularly harsh under the current globalization trend and is bound to be unpopular internationally.

Even so, China needs to objectively analyze the security situation in the Arctic and work with all parties to enhance the capacity for safe travel, to conduct scientific research, to use regional resources and unequivocally support all countries in addressing security challenges in accordance with international law. China must justifiably safeguard its own Arctic security interests.  

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