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Alaska: The Frontier State’s Strategic Relevance in a Warming Climate

Shae Potter | USA Fellow


Russian tanker Renda, Nome, Alaska. Image credit: Charly Hengen (US Coast Guard) via Wikimedia Commons.


From the gold rush to the oil rush, the Frontier State has been a place of adaptation. Its vast landscapes are both inhabited by ancient Indigenous nations and are sites of immense global strategic value. Its efforts in environmental conservation contend with the demands of resource extraction, and the tide of oceanographic change is shifting neighbourly relationships towards regional competition.


In the Arctic region, temperatures are rising at three times the pace of the global annual average. Observational research from NASA’s Vital Signs satellites show summer Arctic ice coverage shrinking by 12.2 per cent each decade for the last forty years. The melting of pack ice and convergent ice floes in the summer months are expanding reliable maritime navigation through previously inaccessible routes. The opening of ice is an opening of opportunity. Alaska’s geographic position will become increasingly relevant for the United States in exerting influence over trade and diplomatic relationships with Russia and Arctic allies.


Maritime trade flows:


The warming Arctic would enable the United States to exercise power over a maritime trade route passing within territorial waters (the Exclusive Economic Zone) for the first time. The opening of the Northwest passage (or Northern Sea Route (NSR)) would see trade reliably pass from the Bering Strait, through the Atlantic, to Western Europe and beyond. This route reduces the journey between London and Tokyo to 8,000 miles, decreasing dependence on existing choke points such as Egypt’s Suez Canal, through which 40 per cent of Europe-Asia trade currently passes.


Controlling a section of a new maritime route allows the United States to proactively safeguard access to, and temper the domestic economic impacts of supply chain disruptions and subsequent inflationary pressure on, consumer goods. For example, recent conflict in the Red Sea has prompted some Suez trade to reroute, increasing shipping costs and affecting global supply chains. In a warmer world, Alaska would become a critical strategic player in the mediation of global trade flows and limit serious disruptions. However, only fifty-three miles across the Bering Strait lies Russia, a close neighbour and fierce adversary.


Russia’s Arctic ambitions:


For a time, Russia owned Alaska. Following various ‘discovery’ expeditions in the mid-late 1700’s, the modern Alaskan landmass was claimed by a small group of Russian colonial traders. Financially weakened by defeat in the Crimean War, Russia sold Alaska to an expansionist United States via a treaty purchase in 1867 for USD$7.2 million. Neither Russia nor the United States took much interest in the land, and it wasn’t until nearly a century after its sale that it became incorporated as the 49th state when President Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act in 1959.


Dormant tension between Alaska and Russia will awaken as Arctic maritime traffic increases and economic interests develop. Their geographic proximity places them on either side of the Bering Strait, so the same opening of maritime trade that benefits the United States will also transform Moscow’s energy policy by shortening transit to China and friends in wider Asia.


A longstanding legal dispute between Russian and Alaskan maritime territory has been reframed by new Russian legislation regulating navigation. Russia argues that some sections of the NSR are within the sovereign jurisdiction of their internal waters, and the NSR in its entirety is an "historically emerged national transportation route of the Russian Federation". The United States considers this interpretation to be inconsistent with The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). To date, this Arctic legal dispute has been arbitrated diplomatically. However, shows of military strength have begun. In August 2023, a joint Russia-China exercise near the Aleutian Islands saw the US Navy deploy destroyers along the Alaskan coastline.


Sanctions imposed on Russia due to the war in Ukraine have slowed the progress of its Arctic projects. For now, the Kremlin’s line of sight has turned westwards. The timing is right for the United States is to deepen cooperation with Arctic partners.


Partnerships within the Arctic Council:

 

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum that facilitates matters of diplomacy and governance. Expanding cooperation and information sharing with Arctic allies will reinforce the US’ position as an Arctic power and demonstrate its commitment to protecting shared interests in the region. Russia is a member of the Council. Reinforcing norms of action and communication through its frameworks and holding Russia accountable to the Council’s founding attestations could moderate its maritime territorial legal claims, and ideally instate boundaries concerning access and interoperability among all Arctic states.


Arctic countries have long participated in multilateral scientific research initiatives. Strengthening co-production of climate and conservation work will not only help to protect fragile and important ecosystems but will advance strategic knowledge of the region’s future. The Arctic Council has facilitated US-Russia scientific cooperation before. In 2017, they co-chaired a task force on improving Arctic scientific relationships, culminating in the legally binding Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed in Alaska. The Council provides a necessary framework for the US to navigate regional relationships and develop shared approaches, which are more important than ever as environmental changes begin to upend the status quo.

 

The future - collaboration or conflict:

 

Through Alaska, the United States has a foothold in a region of emergent strategic relevance. As it was prophetically nicknamed, Alaska will be the new frontier for US-Russia relations. How global maritime trade develops will hinge on how all Arctic states develop norms across an environment in flux. The opening of ice is an opening of opportunity - for either collaboration or conflict.




Shae Potter is the USA Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is versed in global business strategy and leadership through her current pursuit of a part-time Master of Business Administration at the University of Sydney, with her international relations expertise underpinned by a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences. 


Shae has a deep personal interest in US domestic and foreign policy and frequently attends events hosted by the US Consul General and the Unites States Studies Centre.

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