How Not to Compete in the Arctic: The Blurry Lines Between Friend and Foe


In December, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer said the fear of a large-scale passenger ship experiencing catastrophic damage in the Arctic keeps him up at night: “Can you imagine a Carnival line cruise ship having a problem, and the Russians do the search and – do the extraction?” He went on to argue for a stronger presence of the U.S. Navy in the Arctic, including through the opening of a strategic port in Alaska and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region.

It isn’t just the U.S. Navy that worries about the possibility of a Titanic-type accident. The other Arctic coastal states — Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia — know that as more and more cruise ships sail further north to meet an increasing demand for Arctic experiences, the risk increases. Norway’s response to this challenge has been instructive: It has prepared for such contingencies alongside Russia rather than paint Russian rescuers as potential threats to tourists in distress. This is not, however, an indicator that Norway has “gone soft” with respect to Russia in the Arctic: At the same time, it has doubled the number of U.S. Marines that it invites on a rotational basis to its territory and recently hosted the largest NATO exercise since the end of the Cold War.

The Arctic defies simplistic views of geopolitical friends and foes. The United States and its allies, such as Canada, do not necessarily agree on key issues in the region, while in other areas, U.S. strategic competitors — Russia and China — might find common ground with the U.S. position. The blurry lines between allies and adversaries require that the United States fine-tune its defense policy tools in the Arctic to ensure that its actions do not hamper relations with allies and inadvertently shore up the position of adversaries.

Russia’s mix of competition and cooperation with Norway displays some similarities to its relations with the United States in the Arctic. Recent U.S. strategic documents portray Russia as a competitor of the United States and an unambiguous rival that, like China, “challenge[s] American power.” Yet in the Arctic, Russia is also a neighbor with whom trivial matters need to be discussed and deconflicted before they become nontrivial. Take the Bering Strait: Last May, the International Maritime Organization adopted a joint U.S.-Russia proposal creating shipping lanes to offer more space for ships to maneuver safely and delineating dangerous areas to be avoided. This represents an important improvement for maritime safety in the narrow and increasingly busy strait.

Similarly, despite tensions on other issues, over the past decade the United States and Russia have successfully pushed forward with other Arctic and non-Arctic nations on new legal instruments to help regulate or promote Arctic activities. In 2014, the International Maritime Organization adopted the Polar Code on the basis of a recommendation from the Arctic Council, of which both the United States and Russia are members. The code mandates a range of safety measures for vessels navigating the region, from keeping survival equipment on board to ensuring crews are adequately trained for Arctic conditions. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum, established in 2015, conducted a live exercise in 2017 and is preparing for the next one, to be held in Finland this April. An Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation was adopted in 2017 under the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council. These achievements may have been easy to overlook amid growing tensions with Russia, but they represent progress for those who live in, or transit through, the region. Further coordination with Russia on safety and stewardship missions in the Arctic could mean more secure coastal populations, safer shipping, lower risks, and other collective benefits.

Of course, the United States should not ignore less constructive Russian actions. Moscow is building and upgrading military infrastructure in its Arctic region and, as Spencer noted recently, not all of these new bases and facilities are for search and rescue. Russia is deploying capabilities that can defend a region it deems highly strategic, but could also, in theory, be employed for other purposes — for instance, locking Norway (a NATO member) behind an anti-access/area denial  “bubble.” During the Cold War, the Arctic came under intense scrutiny as it represented the shortest flight path for bombers between the Soviet Union and North America. Scrutiny is still warranted today: Over the past six months, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) registered three instances of Russian bombers coming too close to the United States and needing to be turned back.

A key U.S. partner when it comes to monitoring the Arctic for threats is Canada. The United States and Canada have cooperated through NORAD since it was established in 1957. Its two original missions were aerospace warning and aerospace control, and in 2006, a third mission — maritime warning — was added. This cooperation was further enhanced with the 2012 signing of the Tri-Command Framework for Arctic Cooperation, which promotes more military cooperation in the Arctic between the United States and Canada. The two countries engage in numerous joint exercises, such as the under-ice amphibious exercise ICEX, and NORAD’s annual Vigilant Shield, which focuses on homeland defense. Canada has presented the United States as its “premier partner in the Arctic,” while the 2014 Arctic Roadmap of the U.S. Navy highlights the “unique and enduring partnership” between the United States and Canada.

Yet the United States and Canada also have a few areas of contention in the Arctic. One of these is their differing interpretations of the status of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Beaufort Sea to the Baffin Bay in northern Canada. The United States contends that this is an international strait that ships should transit freely, while Canada describes it as its “internal waterways.” Since 2010, Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone regulations have made it mandatory for ships to register with the Canadian Coast Guard to enter the passage. Interestingly, this disagreement mirrors a similar one with Moscow. Russia defines the Northern Sea Route, which runs along its northern shore from the Barents Sea to the Chukchi Sea, as its internal waters. The United States classifies this contention as an “excessive maritime claim.”  The U.S. Freedom of Navigation Programwas created in 1979 to counter this category of claims. Canada and Russia ground their respective claims in Article 234 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea , which gives coastal states more power to regulate navigation in ice-covered areas in order to prevent marine pollution, but the United States disagrees with how Canada and Russia apply this article to the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route, respectively.

While the United States and Canada have generally agreed to disagree on the Northwest Passage, Spencer’s mention of FONOPs in December was probably not well-received in Canada, especially his urging that “We need to be doing FONOPs … in the northwest – in the northern passage.” Furthermore, pushing these operations in the Arctic exposes a fundamental inconsistency: While the United States wants to confront Russia’s “excessive maritime claim,” it is acquiescing to the same behavior from Canada. To be sure, there are many other risks surrounding a potential FONOP in the Arctic beyond undermining America’s legal justification for these operations. Still, U.S. policymakers should be thinking about how reaching for this tool in the Arctic could impact their ability to promote the principle of freedom of navigation in other regions.

Indeed, there is one country that would probably love for the United States to conduct FONOPs in the Northern Sea Route, and that is China. Like Russia and Canada, China’s views of the Arctic defy simple classifications of U.S. allies and rivals. China’s first Arctic Policy document, issued a year ago, reiterates the country’s commitment to abide by existing norms regulating Arctic affairs. China recognizes Arctic states’ sovereign rights in the region, which was a condition for the counry  joining the Arctic Council as an observer. Yet while remaining within the boundaries of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, China also promotes a vision of the Arctic as belonging to all mankind, arguing that what happens in the region has global implications and cannot be left to Arctic states only. Its goals, as stated in its Arctic policy, are to ultimately “safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic.”

This vision is actually not too different from the U.S. position as presented in its own key strategic documents. The National Security Strategy released in December 2017 mentions the Arctic very briefly, lumping it in with land, sea, outer space, and the digital realm, which are all described as “common domains” that should be kept “open and free” — a limited definition of the Arctic if there ever was one. The National Defense Strategy does not use the word “Arctic,” but names “ensuring common domains remain open and free” as a U.S. “defense objective.” This vision of the Arctic as a common domain puts the United States and China on a similar page, while Canada and Russia share the opposite vision — one that gives Arctic states primacy in regional governance and seeks to limit outsider interference.

While China is on the receiving end of U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea, it may benefit if this practice starts happening in the Arctic. In a hypothetical world where the Northern Sea Route was an international strait, China would be the first beneficiary of this change — not the United States. Vessels going to or coming from a Chinese port represent a substantial share of the current traffic on that route. Currently, Chinese vessels pay service fees to Russia to transit through the route, with extra costs for an icebreaker and escort that do not come cheap — an estimated $140,000 for one Chinese cargo ship’s voyage in 2017, according to a recent Stimson Center report. China, which already has an icebreaker and is building a second one, could — and would prefer to — do without these extra costs. Meanwhile, the only functioning U.S. heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, is in such bad shape that the U.S. Coast Guard previously said no to a possible FONOP in the Northern Sea Route for fear that it might break down during the operation.

The United States should not assume that what it does to keep China in check in the South China Sea will also work against Russia in the Arctic. Not only are they different competitors calling for different approaches, the Arctic is also a region where simple lines of division between competitors and friends may not hold. Canada is America’s NORAD partner and NATO ally, but its legal and political positions on governance and sovereignty in the Arctic are closer to Russia’s than to America’s. Meanwhile, China is engaged in some degree of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic — particularly on energy issues — but maintains a cautious attitude. Its vision of freedom of navigation in the Arctic aligns more with the U.S. perspective than with the Russian one.

The differing views of FONOPs provide just one example of how applying one-size-fits-all strategies in the Arctic may be detrimental to U.S. interests, and how a simplistic view of U.S. friends and foes leads to blunders and missed opportunities. If the United States fails to give some serious thought to the second- and third-order consequences of its actions in the Arctic, it risks aggravating friends, helping adversaries, and hurting itself in a region where great power competition is likely to play out in unique ways.


Stephanie Pezard is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Image: U. S. Navy photo by Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs