Op-ed | China’s Arctic gambit a concern for U.S. air and space forces

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The United States must work with long-time Arctic partners to increase vigilance in this increasingly vital region.

China has published an Arctic strategy making clear the government’s desire to control infrastructure along Arctic routes.  

Geographically, the terrestrial Arctic region consists of the area north of the Arctic Circle, including the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas and the territories of eight countries — Canada, Denmark (by way of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.  

Each of these nations are members of the Arctic Council by nature of their physical presence in the Arctic. China’s northernmost city is near the same latitude as Philadelphia.  But China is as always undeterred by the reality of geography. In their singular, Orwellian or doublespeak fashion, the Chinese Communist Party has declared China a “Near Arctic State” — an assertion not made by any other country and not factually supportable. 

In response to the return to strategic competition and the publication of the National Defense Strategy, the Department of the Air Force recently published an Arctic Strategy. The strategy seeks to further peace and security in the Arctic as it recognizes a sea change in the Arctic itself and in space above.  

Technological advancements and climate change provide increasing access to the Arctic’s sea routes, rare earth materials, hydrocarbons, and fisheries. China’s interest in the Arctic is linked to its One Belt, One Road initiative — President Xi’s plan for a Chinese centered and dominated global trade, cyber and space network.  

Most of us view the Mercator map and cannot comprehend the centrality of Arctic air routes to the Northern Hemisphere and the marked advantages the physics provide, but spacefarers know better.  China’s government also understands. It may even know the quote from early Air Corps founder Billy Mitchell: “whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.”  

Accordingly, the Arctic has long been key to the U.S. Air Force missions of securing air routes and ensuring nuclear deterrence.  Northern radar dishes are iconic, enduring symbols of the shortest extraterrestrial, intercontinental flight routes and the importance of the Department of the Air Force’s missile warning mission.  

As air and missile early-warning awareness shift to space, the Arctic also poses unique challenges for the U.S. Space Force.  As a result of Arctic-unique orbital mechanics and naturally occurring electro-magnetic obstacles, there is a scarcity of satellites and decreased modern communications capacity in the Polar regions. 

The U.S. Space Force’s initiatives and cooperative efforts with Norway have recently begun to rapidly address this legacy shortfall.  Similarly, the Arctic Strategy addresses new realities, recognizes the ever-increasing importance of the region, and seeks cooperative endeavors with our closest partners and allies while maintaining an eye toward strategic competitors’ predatory and bullying behaviors.  

James Woolsey, former Director of the CIA, noted that for nations like China and Russia, law is a malleable instrument of power.  They engage in legal, cyber and publicity campaigns, well known now as “lawfare” which seek to subdue, conquer, or gain access to territories by bullying. 

For them, lawfare produces the same effects previously attained only by conventional warfare. For instance, there is no basis in international law for Russia to formally annex Crimea or for China to declare the high seas between the Philippines and Vietnam as Chinese territorial waters. 

China specifically pesters international courts with claims to national waters and the high seas by an invented, yet supposedly ancient “nine-dash line.”  Constant repetition attempts to erode the will of nations and the international tribunal that unanimously invalidated Chinese claims. 

Similarly, in the Arctic, we must be mindful that there is an area of the high seas in the center of the Arctic Ocean entirely bounded by Russian, Canadian, Norway, Denmark/Greenland and U.S. waters. 

China has not yet completely shown its hand, or invented its legal theory to stake claim to the Arctic or these high seas. 

A development to watch is a Chinese state-owned firm, Shandong Gold Mining, seeking to purchase a Canadian mining company with assets and operations 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  

If the Chinese acquisition is successful, China would not only further consolidate gold and rare-earth mining critical to the U.S. space sector’s supply chains, but it would also establish a physical and legal toehold for satellite communications in the increasingly vital and relevant Arctic.   

Given civil-military fusion, Shandong’s physical control of the land associated with a mining operation in Canada would be a first step to providing the Chinese government the permanent infrastructure it needs, including satellite communications coverage and other equipment necessary to fulfill Chinese plans to exploit Arctic hydrocarbons and trade routes. 

The presence of a Chinese state-owned mining firm is a likely first step to a permanent satellite antenna. Our national security depends on mutual vigilance with our long-time Arctic partners in this increasingly vital region. And every rule of law-adhering nation should hesitate before allowing physical, commercial, or legal toeholds for China in the Arctic.

Thomas E. Ayres is General Counsel of the U.S. Air Force