The Trump administration is struggling to effectively counter Russian and Chinese naval and maritime moves in the Arctic, according to analysts and several lawmakers, who say Washington will need to commit more resources than initially thought if it seeks to outmaneuver Moscow and Beijing in the region over the decade to come.
The Pentagon rolled out a fresh “Arctic Strategy” last year, and a recent spending bill in Congress prodded the Defense Department to devote greater attention to the region, but critics say the U.S. posture remains largely reactive and lacks long-term vision.
In contrast, Russia and China are pushing strategies that portray the Arctic as key to their 21st-century economic blueprints. Some on Capitol Hill say the Pentagon has been slow to recognize the strategic importance of the region and has ramped up operations and investment only after it was compelled by law.
With that as a backdrop, regional specialists say the White House has missed an opportunity over the past three years to more clearly educate the American public on why the Arctic matters to long-term U.S. national security, economic growth and global order.
“There’s no coherence to it. Our strategy ends up being a description of what Russia and China are doing in the Arctic because we are not really able to articulate what we are doing in the Arctic,” said Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The U.S. does not know what it wants. It does not know what it wants to accomplish. It does not have a positive policy agenda. And the problem is our adversaries know what they want,” Ms. Conley told The Washington Times in an interview. “The [American] strategy is just reacting to what they can do.”
Trump administration officials have sought to push back against such sentiment in recent months.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a blistering speech to the eight-nation Arctic Council last year. He decried Russia’s growing influence in the Arctic and China’s claim to be a “near-Arctic” state — a description the U.S. rejects outright.
Last summer, the Pentagon spelled out the deep importance of the region with a declaration that the Arctic “represents a potential vector both for attacks on the homeland and for U.S. power projection.”
Few dispute the aggressiveness of the administration’s rhetoric, but critics say serious action to back it up has been lacking until recently.
Last week, the U.S. and U.K. took what many saw as a long-overdue step to counter Russia in the Arctic by dispatching a flotilla of five warships through the Barents Sea, which lies between Russia and Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
The exercise was the first carried out by U.S. forces in the Barents Sea since the Cold War. Moscow responded by dispatching its own ships to aggressively monitor the movements of the U.S. and British vessels.
At the Pentagon, Navy officials said the Barents Sea move was designed to ensure that the U.S. military is prepared to operate in even the most frigid, logistically challenging environments.
Analysts agree that the exercise represented a show of American military power, but many say it was a short-term move. Questions are now swirling over the extent to which it will have any lasting impact on the evolving power dynamics in the Arctic.
The U.S. has seen no clear sign that such exercises will dissuade Russia and China from continuing to put their own imprints on the region. Some in the Trump administration appeared to publicly acknowledge that reality.
“The Chinese and the Russians are everywhere,” Kenneth Braithwaite, U.S. ambassador to Norway and the president’s pick to be the next secretary of the Navy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearings last week.
Lawmakers pressed Mr. Braithwaite on U.S. strategy in the region, and senators across the political spectrum blasted what they described as the lack of an overarching American Arctic doctrine.
Sen. Angus S. King Jr., a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said the Arctic “has not been a serious focus of the United States government.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said the Pentagon is “the last agency in town to realize” the importance of the Arctic and the role it will play in national security.
Pentagon officials have responded by saying the Arctic is a top national security priority — as a potential battleground in broader “greater power competition” with Russia and China.
The U.S. approach, some specialists say, stands in stark contrast with the paths Russia and China are taking.
For Beijing, the Arctic represents a key economic opportunity. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative has included investments in major projects in Arctic nations, part of a vision Beijing has dubbed the “Polar Silk Road.”
Analysts say China is eyeing the Northern Sea Route as a potential alternative to the Suez Canal, which could make it easier, cheaper and faster to move goods all over the world.
To reach that goal, the Chinese government is ramping up investments in heavy icebreaker ships, which are needed to operate fleets in the Arctic’s frigid waters.
Beijing already operates research stations in Iceland and Norway, deepening its footprint in the Arctic Circle and giving it valuable firsthand information about the region.
At the same time, Russia has poured billions of dollars into bridges, ports, transport hubs and other infrastructure in the Arctic. Moscow has invested heavily in regional energy projects and hopes to further strengthen its footing in global oil and natural gas markets.
Like China, Russia sees expansion of the Northern Sea Route as a top priority. “This is a realistic, well-calculated and concrete task,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said at an Arctic forum in St. Petersburg last year. “We need to make the Northern Sea Route safe and commercially feasible.”
Russia also is building additional icebreakers to add to its already sizable advantage over competitors.
The Russian fleet already has a reported 40 icebreakers, compared with only two in the U.S., and one is not even fully operational.
The Pentagon plans to build icebreakers, but officials say construction likely won’t be completed for at least several years.
Critics say the U.S. is lagging behind in other key areas as well.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to study whether the U.S. should build a permanent port in the Arctic. While there was universal agreement that including such language was a positive step, some specialists said it was too late.
“Come on. Why does it take the NDAA to authorize this sort of thing?” said Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Surely this is something that policymakers … would be thinking about anyway,” Mr. Coffey told The Times. “It’s not like it’s a secret. Everyone has known about this for a while. Let’s get a move on with this stuff.”
For all the criticism, it’s clear that the Trump administration is well aware of the geopolitical implications of growing competition in the Arctic.
In his speech last year, Mr. Pompeo took direct aim at Russia and said Mr. Putin intends to use the region as a theater to project military power.
“Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” the secretary of state said. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic.”
Furthermore, some analysts say, it’s not necessarily wrong for the U.S. to adopt more of a defensive rather than overtly offensive posture in the region.
“The status quo in many ways benefits the United States,” said Mr. Coffey. “Although we’re proactive in many ways, maintaining the status quo is the goal.”