Arctic waters seen from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy. (Photo courtesy NASA Goddard Center)

China and Russia are teaming up to pursue their interests in the Arctic, and regional security expert Rebecca Pincus says the United States needs to pay more attention.

“We need to play a shaping role in this region. It’s our backyard. We have vital national interests at stake. And right now we see that two of our peer competitors are taking an active role in this region,” said Pincus, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. She spoke Thursday at a hearing in Washington, D.C., on the implications of an emerging Russia-China alliance. Pincus said China is expected to operate nuclear submarines in the Arctic before long.

“If a Chinese submarine surfaces in the Arctic, in the next — it’s probably more like five to 10 years — that’s really going to change the game up there,” she said.

The two countries have overlapping interests that don’t always align, Pincus said.

China wants access to the vast resources in the Arctic, like minerals and fisheries, as well as the shorter shipping routes made possible by shrinking sea ice. Pincus also said China is interested in conducting scientific research in the Arctic, in part to understand the climate change it will have to contend with.

Pincus describes Russian President Vladimir Putin as a reluctant partner. For now, Putin needs China’s money, because oil prices are low. Also, American and European sanctions have limited Russia’s access to capital. But that could change.

“If the price of oil goes back up and Russian coffers are suddenly full again, Putin will have much greater freedom to act in the Arctic, and I think (he) will try to regain full control as quickly as possible,” Pincus told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which reports to Congress.

Her testimony focused on what Russia and China want from the Arctic. But several commission members wanted her to explain America’s interests. Commissioner Ken Lewis seemed to have a momentary lapse of geography.

“What role do we have, and how do we pursue our role there, since we’re not a — we have no land in the Arctic?” he said, before his colleagues jogged his memory. “I’m sorry. Yes. In Alaska.”

“Um, so the U.S. is an Arctic nation by virtue of Alaska, and we participate in the Arctic Council, which is the highest level intergovernmental forum in the region,” Pincus said. She also cited U.S. guidance documents calling for the Arctic to be a stable, environmentally safe region where the rights of Indigenous people are respected and sustainable development is pursued.

The Arctic was a minor focus for the daylong hearing. Pincus, for instance, was a member of the third panel, called “Risks and Opportunities in Central Asia and Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Arctic.”

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