NEW YORK -- When the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee convened a hearing to confirm the new Secretary of Navy Kenneth Braithwaite, the word "Arctic" was mentioned 35 times.
It topped other hot topics such as "China" and "Russia," which each received 22 mentions, and far outweighed "North Korea," which was raised just six times, reflecting the new interest in the topic in Washington.
"The Chinese and the Russians are everywhere," Braithwaite told senators on May 7, referring to the Arctic region. "Especially the Chinese. You'd be alarmed at the amount of Chinese activity off the coast of Norway in the High North, and we need to be vigilant to that. We need to understand why."
As the U.S. ambassador to Norway for the past two years, Braithwaite has had a front seat view of the activities of the two countries. His appointment to be the secretary of the navy itself is symbolic of the trend.
The former one-star rear admiral said that the opening of Arctic waters, due to the melting of ice, was the main factor motivating the Chinese. "If you look at the northern sea route between Kirkenes, the most-northern city in Norway, coming across the top of Russia," Braithwaite said, it could reduce the amount of time needed to move commerce out of China to European markets "by half."
The senators agreed with Braithwaite's analysis. "The opening up of the Arctic Ocean is a world historical event. It's the equivalent of the discovery of the Mediterranean Sea," said independent Sen. Angus King of Maine. "It's an entirely new water body that was unavailable for human use except for the indigenous peoples for all of human history. It's of enormous strategic importance."
King raised concern about China's ambitions in the region. "The Chinese now have declared themselves a 'near Arctic nation.' That's like Maine saying it's a 'near Caribbean state,'" King joked.
"But they've done it nonetheless and I think it indicates their intention," he said. "Russia and China are both expressing great interest."
Scholars have been warning about the growing footprint of Russia and China in the Arctic, and the possibility that both nations may shape the region’s future.
"The greatest failing of U.S. policy has been its reluctance to understand the strategic implications of great power competition in the Arctic," Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last year in a report. "While the United States believes the Arctic will remain of limited strategic value and that its current minimalist posture is sufficient, its two near-peer competitors, Russia and China, have taken dramatically different and long-term views of the region and have expanded their military and economic footprints."
In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Conley warned of increased collaboration between Moscow and Beijing in the Arctic. "The worst-case scenario for the U.S. and Japan would be an anti-Western condominium between Beijing and Moscow" that could threaten or diminish to access to the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.
She said one move to watch for is Moscow's recognition of the so-called nine-dash line in the South China Sea, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims on the waters, in return for Chinese economic support for Russia’s outer continental shelf claims in the Central Arctic.
Already, the two sides have collaborated financially in the Arctic. When Russia struggled to secure funding from Western banks for its Yamal liquefied natural gas project in the Arctic, due to sanctions following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, it turned to China.
Two Chinese banks, the Export-Import Bank of China and the China Development Bank Corporation, signed two 15-year credit lines for $10.7 billion and $1.5 billion respectively, according to CSIS. China’s Silk Road Fund also provided $1.2 billion.
As a result, Chinese companies gained a combined 29.9% stake in one of the largest LNG projects in the world.
Last year, Russia and China entered a deal that saw state-owned companies from both countries team up to ship LNG from the Arctic. Russia’s major LNG producer Novatek and state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot partnered with two of China’s state-owned enterprises, COSCO Shipping and Silk Road Fund, to manage a fleet of dozens of ice-breakers to transport the fuel from Novatek’s plants, including Yamal LNG.
At his confirmation hearing, Braithwaite said the U.S. needed to increase its presence in the northern seas. He said the navy "provides some of the only capabilities to be able to do power projection in that part of the world," and pointed to the four U.S. Navy ships that entered the Barents Sea off Russia earlier that week as an example of such a display.
The mission, conducted by three Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers -- the USS Donald Cook, the USS Porter and the USS Roosevelt -- and the fast combat support ship USNS Supply, drew the attention of Russia's Northern Fleet, which said it tracked the vessels.
It marked the first time in more than 30 years that American warships had entered the Barents Sea, and was seen to be part of a new Arctic strategy.
"I think we need to continue to do that," Braithwaite said. "An adequate size navy" is required to be vigilant in the region, he added.
At the hearing, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska expressed frustration that the U.S. had been on its back foot in the Arctic. Touching on a 2013 paper released by the Obama administration titled "National Strategy for the Arctic Region," Sullivan said "It was 13 pages, 6 of which were pictures. Russia was mentioned once in a footnote. It was a joke."
But now he said there has been "an awakening" of the strategic importance of the Arctic. "Our adversaries are not waiting," he said. "Russia obviously, but China, others, the great power competition that we now know is upon us is really taking place in that part of the world."