Chinese Arctic Incursion Spooks Lawmakers

Chinese vessels patrol waters near Alaska as Beijing increases Arctic aims

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) / Getty Images
September 20, 2021

China is using the Arctic and seas only miles away from Alaska as a staging area to undermine U.S. national security, top lawmakers and experts say.

Newly released images reveal a fleet of Chinese warships conducting operations in American waters off the coast of Alaska, prompting Coast Guard vessels to track and communicate with the ships. Defense hawks in Congress fear that the maneuvers are a test case. Beijing's saber rattling in Taiwan and contested control of the South China Sea has prompted concern from national security officials, but China's military could soon join with Russia to pose a threat closer to U.S. territory, according to Alex Gray, the former chief of staff for the Trump administration’s national security council and a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

"What really became apparent under President Trump was just how ambitious and challenging Beijing’s aims in the Arctic are," Gray told the Washington Free Beacon. "There is a significant strategic challenge in the Arctic. ... It is on the verge of becoming an access-denied environment."

China has declared itself a "near-Arctic nation" and has put force behind that claim to back it up. Beijing is building polar icecutters—heavy-duty ships needed to traverse the Arctic’s waters—at a clip outpacing the United States. China also harbors a scientific base on the Norwegian possession of Svalbard, which Gray warns could soon become a site for military purposes, while also targeting Greenland as a location for other installations. The region also comes with trade benefits: The country has developed a "polar silk road," not unlike its notorious belt-and-road system, to extend its shipping routes to unsuspecting countries in the Arctic.

Pentagon spokesman John Supple told the Free Beacon that the department is aware of Chinese operations off Alaska and that it "remains committed to upholding "a rules-based international order that preserves freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for all nations."

"While we will continue to monitor the activities of these ships with interest, the Department of Defense has no objection to foreign vessels—to include warships from the People’s Republic of China—operating in international waters, even those adjacent to the United States," Supple said. "It is worth noting that the People’s Republic of China routinely objects to the military and survey operations of the United States and other nations in the PRC’s exclusive economic zone, even as it deploys its own ships to the exclusive economic zones of the United States, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and other maritime nations. As the People’s Republic of China chooses to exercise maritime rights and freedoms as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, we call on them to respect the maritime rights and freedoms of other nations operating in the PRC’s exclusive economic zone."

The importance of the region is not lost on lawmakers. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska), a member of the Armed Services Committee, told the Free Beacon China’s looming challenges near his state require urgent action from the Biden administration. A massive defense buildup—such as the recent discovery of hundreds of Chinese nuclear missiles—make the future of the region of great concern, Sullivan said.

"The Arctic is an area of competition, not just because of natural resources and open sea lanes, but it is also increasingly being viewed as an avenue of approach toward the continental United States through nuclear missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic missiles. ... They would come through Alaska," Sullivan said. "We need a firm approach as it relates to this new cold war."

Military officials have taken notice of the potential threat to the north. The Department of the Air Force released an Arctic defense strategy singling out Chinese and Russian activity in the region as a major challenge. Sullivan led an effort to create the Arctic Security Initiative—a detailed framework for how to defend Alaska and other American interests in the region—which will go into this year’s annual defense bill. He also called for additional investment in the Coast Guard, which only has two active icecutter ships, one of which is in critical condition, compared with Russia’s 54.

The Biden administration has offered a different approach. When Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Alaska in July he touted the Arctic as a "strategic hotspot" for competition with China and Russia—the conflict, in his telling, came down to climate change. Climate czar John Kerry also continues to flirt with the Chinese about climate change cooperation, which could come at the expense of the defense buildup.

"The fact that John Kerry was in Beijing two weeks ago is the ultimate signal of weakness for the Biden administration," Sullivan said. "The more Kerry has a point-man position for China policy in the Biden administration, the less support he’ll get from Republicans. He already sold our national interest out once in the South China Sea. I have no idea what he’s trying to sell out this time as it relates to climate change."

While he has long sounded the alarm on threats to his home state, Sullivan is now finding increasing support among lawmakers from the lower 48 states. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) told the Free Beacon the Arctic is becoming an "increasingly strategic" area requiring American attention.

"The Arctic occupies increasingly strategic geography that connects the United States to both Northeast Asia and Northern Europe," Gallagher said. "As China and Russia expand their military presence in the region, we must ensure American forces have the infrastructure, logistics, and training needed to safeguard our interests in the High North."