In January 2012, President Barack Obama transmitted his Strategic Defense Guidance to the Department of Defense, heralding a “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region. Initially (and appropriately) characterized as a “pivot”, the high-profile presidential pronouncement marked the close to a chapter in America’s superpowerdom in which the security of the Europe, the Middle East, and the Atlantic Ocean took precedence. The Administration recognized Asia’s ascendancy merited a new level of attention and, going forward, diplomatic and military commitments would shift. Less heralded but equally significant was the arrival this year of the Yong Shen, a container vessel in Rotterdam, The Netherlands on September 11. The Yong Shen completed the first voyage of commercial ship from China to Europe via the Arctic Ocean rather than through the Suez Canal, which reduced the ship’s travel time and distance by two weeks and 2,400 miles (09/11/13 Defense News). The United States intends to focus on the Asia-Pacific, but the opportunities associated with the opening of the Arctic Ocean are rapidly coming over the horizon. Which ocean should take precedence and which approach should the United States adopt?
Picking a Pivot…
A simple comparison of geographic, demographic, and economic factors shows the Pacific Ocean should take precedence over the Arctic Ocean.
The Pacific Ocean is 60.1 million square miles and its coastline totals 84,297 miles; the Arctic Ocean is 5.4 million square miles and its coastline measures 28,204 miles.
Excluding the United States and small Pacific island nations, the population of the 30 countries with Pacific Ocean coastlines totals 2.7 billion; the population of Arctic countries is approximately one-sixth that amount, 202.1 million.
Total military expenditures in the Asia-Pacific totals $465.8 billion, whereas the corresponding amount for the Arctic is $135.2 billion.
The combined GDP of the 30 Asia-Pacific countries is nearly five times that of the Arctic countries -- $26.9 trillion versus $5.4 trillion.
However, when examining the economic and demographic figures in combination, one factor in favor of the Arctic Ocean becomes evident -- the associated countries are wealthier per capita. The reason lies, in part, with regime type and governance.
In examining the regime type (as categorized by Freedom House), the Arctic Ocean, while home to less countries, features a far greater proportion of Free states -- seven of eight. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific is home to 13 Free, 12 Partly Free, and 6 Not Free states. Furthermore, the Legatum Institute’s examination of governance shows Arctic countries clustered near the top, whereas Asia-Pacific countries’ governance varies widely.
Tellingly, the one outlier of the Arctic group is the one country that may help determine on which ocean the United States should focus -- Russia.
Russia: Balancer or Bandwagoner?
The challenges and demands of dozens of countries and billions of people arrayed around the immense Pacific Ocean will require substantial skill and patience.
The People’s Republic of China alone has defied easy characterization and straightforward policymaking for the past twenty years. Successive Administrations have oscillated between labeling the PRC a partner and a competitor, between welcoming the rise of a new stakeholder and hedging against a rapidly ascendant military power.
Furthermore, the United States possesses only bilateral security agreements in the region. No multilateral organization exists to foster regional economic integration or security cooperation. Indeed, the trends in military expenditures are indicative of arms racing throughout the region. Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific will be a diplomatically daunting and militarily expensive undertaking for the United States.
And Russia is watching.
Present Russian leadership is inclined to maneuver against the United States when and where possible and this will include aligning with the PRC (and others) opportunistically in the Asia-Pacific. The “China Card”, once the trump card in the American hand, may become Russia’s play for the near future. As observed in Iran and Syria, Russia can and will undermine American priorities. Between diplomatic support, energy resources, and arms sales, Russia has a number of ways to help facilitate PRC and other countries frustrate American initiatives in the Asia-Pacific.
In stark contrast, the Arctic Ocean constitutes a arena where multilateral institutions and democratic regimes prevail. Canada, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark are founding members of the NATO alliance. Similarly, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are members of the European Union. Every Arctic Ocean country is a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Lastly, every Arctic country sits on the Arctic Council, a regional intergovernmental body in existence since 1996.
Accustomed to wielding a veto and parleying anti-American sentiment in the United Nations, Russia would be among countries uninterested in its brand of power politics -- and able to withstand it. Russia could explore alignment with the PRC, which was just granted observer status on the Arctic Council. However, the step could backfire as Russia fears Chinese penetration of Siberia and would loathe becoming the junior partner in any dyad.
Russia, in the Arctic, would still be watching, but probably more agreeably and constructively, or become a mere bystander as the region opens up.
Acknowledged -- good behavior on the part of the Russians is not a given and hedging is similarly advisable.
Picking an Approach...
Meaningful hedging entails employing multiple options, inclusive those diplomatic, commercial, and military. Unfortunately, history demonstrates the last has generally been the default hedge as the opening of new trade routes transform once sleepy hinterlands into imperial crossroads.
In November 1869, French engineers completed the Suez Canal, which Great Britain promptly deemed critical to sustaining its possessions in India. After becoming a controlling shareholder in the canal, Great Britain eventually occupied all of Egypt in 1882 and extended its imperium throughout eastern Africa and along the Indian Ocean coastline of the Arabian peninsula.
Between 1903 and 1914, American engineers built the Panama Canal. To ensure the security of the project, the United States began deploying forces throughout the region. Between 1903 and 1933, American forces undertook multiple and overlapping interventions in eight Central American and Caribbean countries.
The Arctic Ocean is unique in that its geography and climate have precluded any similar attempts at dominion, save for Russia’s planting of its flag below the North Pole. While theatrical, the gesture was essentially meaningless and underscored how unfettered by power politics the region is and how encouraging the prospects are for maintaining it as such.
Multiple opportunities for diplomatic initiatives exist. The Arctic Council has been and will remain the locus of negotiations regarding emergency response, environmental regulations, maritime access, and, most challengingly, territorial disputes. Given the history, relationships, and regime types found among the regional stakeholders, a virtuous circle of constructive and confidence-building settlements is possible.
If diplomacy is indeed emphasized, then a regional arms race need not occur. First of all, regional militaries would have to obtain capabilities required to operate in the region before even acquiring those needed to gain advantage in such a climate. Second, Russia is justifiably concerned about its security, but the country rarely provokes armed conflict with comparable military powers. Moreover, committing military capabilities to the Arctic might entail the sacrifice of capabilities along its more problematic southern periphery.
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The above is not meant to definitively answer where and how the United States should address a complex foreign policy decision, but the arguments cited should underscore the need for a balanced consideration of the associated opportunities and challenges. Without such an examination, history may remember “rebalancing” as the period when the United States simply traded bloody and costly interventions in poor countries for combustible security situations involving increasingly wealthier countries.
Preparing for the rise of Asia-Pacific is justified, but America’s diplomatic and military approaches have been diminished by a lack of coherence. The annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the PRC has been vested with the priority and prestige a summit between the world’s two largest economies deserves, while the clandestine development of AirSea Battle has only fueled suspicions.
In 2015, the United States will become chair of the Arctic Council and inherit a rare chance to ensure the world’s next great opening is marred by neither mercantilism nor militarism. If the United States is genuinely interested in reconstituting itself after a decade of war and resetting relations with Russia, then comprehensively preparing for the opening of the Arctic would be prudent. If America’s preparation is limited to devising AirPolar Battle, then a major opportunity will have been wasted.