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What is now being dubbed the scramble for the Arctic, a not so subtle reference to the scramble for Africa by European countries in the 19th century, is the increasing military and economic presence by world powers in the Arctic region. The increasing push into the Arctic has been enabled in the last number of years by the effects of climate change and the melting of Arctic ice caps. Until recently, the Arctic has been regarded as neutral territory as it represented little in the way of competitive advantages. A small committee composed of Arctic countries – Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and Russia – maintained peaceful diplomatic relations for the region. Climate change has opened Arctic shipping lanes, tourism, access to abundant mineral deposits, as well as access to some of the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves. Arctic countries and even self-proclaimed near Arctic countries (China) have increased activity and presence in the region, including recent deployment of U.S B-2 stealth bombers.
The U.S believes itself as playing catch-up to the economic and military ramp up by Russia and China in the Arctic region. Last month, the U.S B-2 stealth bombers conducted an operation which saw the US aircrafts push into norther European airspace for the first time since the Cold War. The operation began with a fueling stop at Iceland’s Keflavik airport, a former U.S Navy base established during WWII which closed in 2006 but is still regularly visited by NATO allies. After fueling in Keflavik, the U.S aircraft flew in a joint exercise with the Royal Air Force (RAF) off the coast of the UK. The U.S and the UK have a long history of working in joint operations across the globe including recent naval operations in the South China Sea and in the Black Sea. Following the joint exercise with the RAF, the B-2’s flew into airspace over the Norwegian Sea. The three phases of the operation are an intentional signal of American influence in the region. The U.S B-2 stealth bomber operation was intended to be a clear signal that growing Russian and Chinese influence in the Arctic region will not go unchallenged. Specifically looking at the B-2 stealth bomber flight path each region or country visited was significant. Firstly, Iceland has recently attracted significant investment from China as part of the country’s Arctic Belt and Road initiative. However, Iceland remains a NATO ally and the B-2 stealth bomber fueling stop at the Keflavik airport is no coincidence. The U.S also demonstrated its continuing commitment to NATO and key allies with the joint operation with the RAF. The U.S and the UK have both opposed increased expansionism of Russia in Crimea and China in the South China Sea. Finally, the B-2 stealth bombers’ flight path over the Norwegian Sea neared the Kola Peninsula, which is home to Russia’s northern fleet and main Arctic combat forces, a clear signal of US military might. The scramble for the Arctic is a microcosm for the growing challenge from Russia and China to US economic and military supremacy. Continued expansion and development by these countries will likely continue to provoke responses from the U.S and its allies in the region.