China is conducting Arctic research in an area considered the extended undersea shelf of the United States, while Russia is able to move across the frozen regions in 27 icebreakers.

Meanwhile, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said the United States is practically a bystander in the region.

“We sit here on the sidelines as the only nation that has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention,” Zukunft told a gathering Tuesday at the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space exposition and conference at National Harbor, Maryland. “Our nation has two ocean-going icebreakers … We’re the most prosperous nation on Earth. Our GDP is eight times that of Russia. Russia has 27 ocean-going icebreakers.”

The U.S. has only two, he said, practically conceding the Arctic to foreign nations, Zukunft said.

“What happened when Sputnik went up? Did we say ‘good for you but we’re not playing in that game?’” he asked. “Well, we’re not playing in this game at all.”

Beneath the Arctic is about 13 percent of the world’s oil and nearly 30 percent of its natural gas. And on the seabed is about a trillion dollars’ worth of minerals, Zukunft said. Coast Guard mapping indicates that an area about twice the size of California would be considered America’s extended continental under the U.N. sea convention not signed by the U.S.

Among other things, the convention establishes guidelines for management of marine resources, and spells out responsibilities countries have in using the oceans.

The U.S. signed the original convention in 1958, but not the successor treaty passed in 1982.

President Obama has advocated for the sea law, but the Senate has refused to ratify it.

Nearly a year ago in a speech at West Point, Obama said it is more difficult for the U.S. to criticize China over its sea disputes when the U.S. will not enter into an international treaty that is supported by U.S. military leaders.

Zukunft told Military.com on Tuesday that a new icebreaker would sit on top of his wish list — one that could be modified to include armaments if necessary.

“Modular, so depending on what the mission is it,” Zukunft said. “So, that if the threat escalates then we could then back-fit it with [arms].”

Zukunft said that kind of “reserve space, weight and power” capability is the future of shipbuilding, so that a ship expected to be in service 30 years or longer will be able to meet immediate and changing needs.

– Bryant Jordan can be reached at Bryant.jordan@military.com