The Republican-led panel is increasingly concerned about the ways some U.S. adversaries are using the polar waters to set up trade routes and potentially create strategic military positions. In particular, the committee hopes to learn more about how Beijing and Moscow are starting to take advantage of the area and what risks that may pose to the U.S.
“As the polar cap melts and pathways open to traverse and for trade and all of that, the competition for that area is critical,” committee Chairman Mark Green, R-Tenn., said in an interview.
Green said the U.S. needs to have a renewed focus on both the land and the waters around the North Pole. He described how China, with Russia’s help, has been using the northern passages to transport oil and other natural resources. The cooperation between the two countries, with Russia selling oil to China, demonstrates an effort by the Chinese government to offer a degree of relief to Russia, which has been hit by heavy economic sanctions around the world because of its military incursion into Ukraine, Green said.
“That’s very concerning,” he said. “I would say Russia in a way is subjugating itself and to some extent to China in this, so this alignment has been going on for some time. Layer in there Iran on the global scale. But as far as it goes with the high north, it’s Russia and China cooperating for that very reason.”
But the committee's concerns go beyond economic competition.
Green said high-ranking naval officers have warned the committee that Russia is trying to militarize the Arctic region, with the movement of Russian ships putting the U.S. Navy on heightened awareness.
“Russia has reopened some bases in the high north and military installations that they had initially closed down at the fall of the Iron Curtain, so to speak, with all the Soviet Union,” Green said. “They now have reopened those, militarized those, so clearly as the competition goes for these trade routes, for the security of the United States and for our allies, assessing what that threat is is a critical part of [Wednesday's] hearing.”
The committee will hear from one of those military leaders at the hearing, as well as other government officials who are expected to speak about the trade implications of an increasingly crowded Arctic north.
The witness list, first shared with NBC News, includes: Vice Adm. Peter W. Gautier, the Coast Guard's deputy commandant for operations; Christa Brzozowski, the acting assistant secretary of homeland security for trade and economic security; Chelsa L. Kenney, the director of international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office; and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.
The Coast Guard operates all of the U.S. fleet of icebreakers, a key tool in maintaining U.S. sovereignty in the region.
“Sovereignty, the ability to rescue ships that get stranded but also to maintain those navigable waterways — it’s critical,” Green said of the Coast Guard icebreakers. “Russia has a lot, and China has more than we do, and they don’t even have space on the Arctic.”