Is China Really Threatening Conquest in the Arctic? 

President Donald J. Trump meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin prior to his bilateral meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih Tuesday, September 24, 2019, at the Lotte New York Palace in New York City. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The United States’ greatest challenge in the Arctic lies in its application of the Monroe Doctrine, not Chinese ambitions


On December 19th, the US Congress passed the S. 1790: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Just a day later, President Donald Trump signed it into force. It will allocate a whopping $738 billion to updating and revamping US defense capabilities. 

Among the long list of objectives are sections on the “designation of Department of Defense strategic Arctic ports” and “Chinese foreign direct investment in countries of the Arctic region.” 

According to a recent Washington Times article by Mike Glenn, these inclusions reflect the increasing concern among top US military leaders and the Trump administration that China’s “growing ambitions in the Arctic represent a major national security threat to the United States.” 

There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states… No third category exists—and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.
Mike Pompeo

One of the chief concerns expressed by countless US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is Chinese engagement in the Arctic region. Glenn refers to a statement by Pompeo earlier this year that “There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states… No third category exists—and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.” 

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Such statements have not deterred China, Glenn adds, as China has already outpaced the US in the construction of icebreakers and shows no signs of slowing its pursuit of strategic opportunities in the Arctic. 

US leaders are correct to express distress over the situation as it trails further behind in Arctic military capabilities and influence, but not for the reason that they think. From a strategic standpoint, the United States is facing an opponent, China, with a much more disciplined, adapted, and ultimately effective approach to “winning” in the Arctic. 

First of all, once economic integration has taken place, it is difficult to undo. China has also been an eager participant in Arctic institutions, such as the Arctic Council, where it seeks to gain as much influence over policy as it can. It also markets itself as a devoted “non-Arctic state” determined to supply resources towards a utopian Arctic future. 

The Chinese history of strategic expertise extends as far back as Sun Tzu, one of the most famous military philosophers ever known. He understood that strength is not just about kinetic military capabilities, but the ability to “wage war” without those capabilities. 

U.S. Coast Guard Arctic class ice breaker 'Mackinaw'; Wikimedia Commons;

 His work shouldn’t be taken literally as an instruction manual about combat and battle tactics. It has been applied to cyber warfare, to business—even to interpersonal relationships. And in the Arctic context, it has been adjusted well to an environment that offers economic opportunities, lacks modern infrastructure in many areas, badly needs financial investment, and has immense untapped potential. 

Whatever China’s ultimate goals are in the Arctic, clearly the first step is to generate as much economic and political influence as it possibly can. And its methods seem very well aligned with that goal thus far. 

The United States, on the other hand, continues to place its faith in military power, believing that by bearing its teeth it can scare predators away. This may seem archaic, and it is. The truth is that the Arctic represents an especially sensitive place for the United States. And US policy makers are still struggling to let go of an old narrative about US vulnerability in the Western Hemisphere. 

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823

First of all, it is important to point out that US unilateralism became an integral part of US foreign policy long before it was a great power. President James Monroe in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 set the precedent for unilateralism when the United States was a young country less than half the geographical size that it is today. 

Although circumstances have changed, the Monroe Doctrine remains the most influential principle of US foreign policy and means that “any intervention by external powers in the politics of the Americas is a potentially hostile act against the US.”  

There has not been much discussion about the influence of the Monroe Doctrine on US Arctic Policy, and there has been even less discussion about the influence of US Arctic Policy on the original Monroe Doctrine of 1823. But actually, the Monroe Doctrine was in large part provoked by fears of foreign encroachment in the North American Arctic. 

Portrait of James Monroe; Wikimedia Commons;


Historically, the Monroe Doctrine at its original enunciation was aimed in part against the extension of territorial claims by Russia in the north.
David Hunter Miller

In an article from Foreign Affairs, David Hunter Miller writes, “It has been suggested that the Monroe Doctrine has a bearing upon lands in the Arctic. Speaking very generally, this is no doubt true. Historically, the Monroe Doctrine at its original enunciation was aimed in part against the extension of territorial claims by Russia in the north.” 

Miller’s article was published in October of 1825. 

In the first quarter of the 18th century, the countries of the Americas were, for the most part, a series of former European colonies that one-by-one had gained their independence. Delimiting boundaries in the American Arctic—the “Northwest Question”—had been a cause of tension between Imperial Russia and the United States for years. 

In 1821, Tsar Alexander I granted the Ukase of 1821, which, according to historians Irby C. Nichols, Jr. and Richard A. Ward, “asserted extravagant claims of territorial and maritime jurisdiction” over a significant portion of the American Northwest. 

The Russian-American Company, which had been granted a monopoly over Alaska’s lucrative fur trade, was facing competition from Britain and the United States in the region. 

Although the decree was never enforced, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams was deeply concerned. Monroe had been in support of a joint U.S.-British resolution against future colonization in the Americas, and while Adams initially favored it as well, he soon advised against it. 

…We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

Adams reasoned that joining forces with the British may limit opportunities for future US expansion, of which he was an avid proponent. He also worried that Britain may seek to pursue its own imperialist ambitions. Ultimately, at Adams’ insistence, Monroe took a unilateralist approach that would be forever enshrined in the Monroe Doctrine. 

Fur Traders in a Mackinaw Boat or Keel-Boat on Slave River; Wikimedia Commons;

In December of 1823, Monroe delivered his yearly presidential address to Congress. A section of the address made clear that any attempt by foreign powers to colonize or interfere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered a direct threat to U.S. national security and would be met with defensive action:

With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers… We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”

The lines above are part of what has become known as the “Monroe Doctrine” a name given to a brief portion that addressthat introduced this critical principle to U.S. Foreign Policy.

But while the Monroe Doctrine was ostensibly about defense and national security, it was also about the US protecting economic opportunities. At the time, the northwest corner of America weighed heavily into that calculus. 

The Monroe Doctrine Today

Today, the doctrine is tied directly with military power and national defense. 

Of course China’s activities in the Arctic strike a nerve in the United States. It has not faced a significant challenge to its power so close to home in a very long time. From the US perspective, China has nefarious, imperialist ambitions, China is a powerful foreign nation, and China has no right to be present in the Arctic. 

And after years of using military power as the first line of defense against any perceived threat to national security, the United States is only doing what it has always done, and what it believes that it does best. 

China is the modern embodiment of what the Monroe Doctrine sought to deter in 1823. Military power may be the best way to protect against threats of conquest, but these days conquest is not immediately necessary for dominance, influence, or power. US threats and staggering military allocations won’t achieve the desired goal of limiting Chinese presence in the Arctic. 

Thus far, China has obeyed the rules that it absolutely must follow, even if it bends and breaks a few along the way. There are simply too many opportunities in the Arctic for it to be scared away. 

The US national security narrative creates a rigid black-and-white identity. The US is good because it protects against threatening foreign powers, which it characterizes as the complete antithesis to what is good. 

In this case, China plays the ruthless, abusive power that has come to reclaim the United States and overtake the free world. The narrative calls for military power over diplomacy, economics, and, to be completely honest, reason. 

What the US desires most desperately is for China to withdraw from the Arctic completely, and with each passing day that goal becomes more unrealistic. Yes, military power is important and yes, the US should be building ice breakers and keeping an eye on the Arctic. 

But it should also be doing more. So while the US continues to spend trillions defending itself against conquerors of the past, it misses the boat on the innumerable non-military opportunities in the Arctic that could give it an even better position.