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A beckoning Asia could help to reduce Arctic tensions

Little Diomede (Photo by Sue Steinacher)

At their closest, the U.S. and Russia lie barely 4km apart, facing each other from two islands in the middle of the Bering Strait, the icy waterway that connects the Arctic and Pacific oceans. Military observation posts operate along the upper ridges of the Russian island of Big Diomede, and there is a military base on its northern side. There are no civilians there, since the small civilian population was forcibly resettled in 1948 when the border closed at the start of the Cold War.

An abandoned Alaska National Guard outpost (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

     In contrast, the American island of Little Diomede has no government or military presence. Directly facing Russia is a run-down native village with a population of fewer than 80 people, who live in huts clustered on a steep and rocky hillside. The sole observation post, once operated by the Alaska National Guard, was abandoned in the 1970s. Little Diomede is one of the most remote and isolated settlements in the U.S.

     There is no contact between the two islands, and no conflict, either. The border and the international dateline run between them, but both are unmarked, and no national flags fly overtly on either side. Given the level of friction between the two countries elsewhere in the world, this element of the Russian-American relationship retains a remarkably low profile.

     There is also a marked difference between the anti-Russian rhetoric of NATO in Europe and the more low-key approach of the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, which is tasked with defending this border. The frontier is categorized as "nonhostile," and the number of intercepts of Russian aircraft has remained at an average of 10 a year for several decades -- many fewer than on Russia's European borders.

     "The Russian aircrews act in a thoroughly professional manner," said Colonel Charles Butler, an F-22 fighter pilot and Norad operations commander. "They are always outside our sovereign airspace, so they are perfectly legal."

     It is doubtful, however, that the relaxed atmosphere can last.

     The Diomede Islands lie just below the Arctic Circle, the largely frozen region lying above 66 degrees 32 minutes north latitude that is attracting increasing international attention. Russia is strengthening its military presence in the Arctic, and U.S. President Barack Obama is being condemned by the Alaska state government and his Republican opponents in Washington for his failure to follow suit.

     "Drawing down troops in Alaska is a major strategic blunder," Dan Sullivan, a Republican Senator for Alaska, wrote on his Facebook page. "Meanwhile, Russia is adding four brigade combat teams and building 13 new airfields in the Arctic."

From above the village on Little Diomede, an Alaskan island, one can see the neighboring island of Big Diomede, which is part of the Russian district of Chukotka. (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

     This is the region where two antagonistic world powers come face to face, and events are moving so quickly that this criticism needs to be urgently addressed.

     Global warming and the melting of some of the Arctic ice have made accessible vast quantities of natural resources. According to U.S. geological surveys, the Arctic accounts for 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its natural gas.

     Climate change has also opened a northern shipping route between Asia and Europe. Five years ago, four cargo ships carried 100,000 tons of freight, mainly iron ore and petroleum, through the Arctic, instead of using the much longer route through the Suez Canal. Three years later, 71 ships carried more than a million tons along the same route. By 2020, the annual tonnage is forecast to be up to 30 times more.

     The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for the region, should be leading on international policy; so far, it has done little. The council has eight permanent members, with the U.S. its current chair. A further 12 governments -- including China, India, South Korea and Japan -- have observer status, making the Asian powers significant players. But there is no clear agreement about which countries control the seas in this territory of about 30 million sq. km, or about the ownership of the natural resources below the waves.

     Within this vacuum, Russia has set up an Arctic military command. It is reopening six old air bases closed after the Soviet Union's collapse as well as building at least two new ones together with naval bases for ships and submarines.

     The U.S. Navy has no permanent presence in the region. Its nearest bases are in Washington State, on the U.S. West Coast, and at Hawaii, Okinawa and Guam in the Pacific. The U.S. Coast Guard's reach is minimal. One or two cutters patrol tens of thousands of sq. km of ocean. The main Elmendorf-Richardson air base in Anchorage is an hour's flying time from the border.

Dangerous situation

"We need a much stronger defense here," Craig Fleener, Arctic policy adviser for the Alaska state government, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "We don't want this to escalate into a more dangerous situation, so you need a good fence between us and Russia. Strong defense makes good neighbors."

     But defense, carrying with it echoes of the Cold War, will not be enough. There needs to be a rapid increase in regional trade, which is where the influence of northeast Asian governments could be valuable. They have a long history of dampening tension through trade.

The village of Little Diomede (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

     In this respect, the situation resembles the relationship between China and Taiwan (or India and China) until about 20 years ago, when political initiatives began to break through historical mistrust, leading to astronomical increases in cross-border contacts and business activity.

     The U.S.-Russia border is one of the world's most restricted. The Russian district of Chukotka, which includes Big Diomede, remains a closed area. There are no scheduled ferries across the less than 100km of ocean that separates the mainland areas of the two countries. Nor are there commercial flights between the principal American and Siberian cities.

     There are plans to change all this, but they need momentum. 

     At the ambitious pinnacle lies the resurrection of longstanding proposals for a 130km tunnel under the Bering Strait comprising two rail tracks between Russia and Alaska -- possibly using the Diomede Islands as a midway point. From there, a high-speed rail system would be built linking the U.S. mainland with China, Japan and South Korea via Canada and Russia. The cost of the tunnel is estimated at more than $100 billion, and the linking rail networks would run to over $1 trillion.

     The idea was first mooted in the 19th century, when it was given official backing by Russian Czar Nicholas II -- a stamp of approval that was renewed in 2011 by the Kremlin. The concept also has support in the U.S. "We like the idea [in Alaska]," Fleener said. "We're barely connected to the rest of the world, and our infrastructure is limited. This would give us direct access to Asian markets."

     The concept underlines the growing entanglement of the Arctic in the politics of a wider region incorporating the Northern Pacific and the Bering Sea, where the interests of Russia, China, Japan, Canada and the U.S. jostle against one another. Given the tensions that already exist to the south in relation to China's claims in the East and South China seas, the urgency of policy development in the Arctic is clear.

     Steps need to be taken now to apply the time-honored and well-tested formula of defense and trade to the U.S.-Russian border. Obama has an opportunity to start the process when he visits Alaska on Aug. 31 for an international meeting of foreign ministers on the Arctic.

     He could begin by seeking Russian agreement on a ferry service across the Bering Strait. He might also think about raising the U.S. flag on the abandoned observation post on Little Diomede, reasserting American sovereignty in this isolated but increasingly important part of the world.

Humphrey Hawksley, a BBC correspondent and Asia specialist, is the author of "The Third World War" (Macmillan) -- a hypothetical account of a conflict involving China, Russia and the U.S.

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