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Experts Worry the U.S. Is Losing the Race for Arctic Power

Russia and China are investing in a warmer, more open Arctic. The U.S. is thinking about it.
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With the FBI probing possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, it may seem like America’s relationship with its former Cold War adversary couldn’t possibly become more complicated.

And yet, dramatic changes far from Washington and Moscow are adding to the geopolitical migraine. A study published today by the Council on Foreign Relations highlights the relationship between the two nations as a leading concern in the rapidly changing Arctic Circle.

“Today, Russia’s actions in the Arctic require close scrutiny,” the authors write, “and rising U.S.-Russia tensions in other regions may affect relations in the Arctic.”

The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet. As the ice recedes, shipping lanes, hydrocarbon deposits, and fisheries will gradually open. Russia, China, and other nations are treating the Arctic the way they would any other geopolitical gold rush: trying to maximize their access to its abundant resources. As the Arctic heats up, risks are growing that geopolitics will cool.

Russia has a head start in Arctic affairs thanks to its geography and history, according to the report. The Russian coast spans almost 25,000 miles along the Northern Sea Route, which is infrequently traveled today but gradually could account for more shipping traffic between Europe and East Asia as the region warms.

Russia’s Arctic is also more heavily populated and industrialized than North America’s. For decades, the Soviet Union encouraged Arctic economic development. Today, 95 percent of Russia’s vast natural gas deposits and 75 percent of its oil are produced in the region, which helps generate a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

U.S. Arctic policy, however, has centered on scientific, environmental, and energy issues since the end of the Cold War. “These topics remain important,” the report says, “but increased activity by other countries necessitates a more strategic approach to U.S. policy in the region.”

The CFR independent panel, which was led by former Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, suggests the U.S. is dropping behind in the international race to build icebreakers and “strongly urges the U.S. Senate” to join the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty was ratified by 160 nations and supported by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, but the U.S. Senate has declined to ratify it. Whitman said the U.S. will continue to be locked out of negotiations over resource access unless it ratifies the treaty.

Republican senators, including now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have opposed the treaty’s ratification. Since the U.S. has been the dominant force in international waters since World War II, signing an oceans treaty would be like giving a high school student “a redundant international hall pass,” Sessions and two colleagues wrote in 2012.

The U.S. also lacks deepwater ports in the region, which other nations already have or are in the process of constructing. Some existing U.S. points of entry, for example, Nome, Alaska, may be too small or poorly staffed to accommodate the needs of northern travelers—or even modern security, according to the report. Understaffed borders with insufficient facilities could be exploited by "people who want to do us harm,” Whitman said. “It’s the perfect place.”

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