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Jessica Chin

M.A. Candidate, International Economics and Energy, Resources & Environment, Johns Hopkins University

The new US administration is making decisions in the Arctic that sharply contrast with the measured approach most regional actors are taking. In late April, President Trump signed an executive order as part of his “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy”, which intends to open offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and conduct energy exploration of marine sanctuaries in both areas, despite warnings by national security experts.

The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is built on the promise of re-starting discussions of a more “fair” deal for the American people, justifying itself with a critique of the financial and economic cost, and sidelines global warming and its greater implications, putting it at odds with the rest of the Arctic community. In contrast, the Chinese model has steadily progressed by building its Arctic portfolio with a lot of green – emphasizing their desire to put the environment first by funding scientific research projects aimed at climate studies and sustainable development, and through multi-billion acquisitions, investments, and joint ventures with Arctic Council countries.

The Arctic is not just a matter of resources, but is a challenge to national and human security, and all countries must work with the goal of preventing a race towards a zero-sum game. Several experts have analyzed China’s interests and involvement in the Arctic, and though its actions are said to be in the spirit of cooperation and "win-win" mentality, they intersect with several geopolitical considerations.

The Arctic is a region where the US must keep an active seat at the table to hold any leadership power and manage the exploitation of resources, while safeguarding ocean navigation and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. Security in a globalized world requires balancing both national and human security through cooperation and investing in preventative strategies to protect against global concerns such as environmental disasters. Although the US has withdrawn from the Paris accords, the importance of environmental protection and alternative energies in relation to the Arctic must be prioritized.

The new US administration is making decisions in the Arctic that sharply contrast with the measured approach most regional actors are taking. In late April, President Trump signed an executive order as part of his “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy”, which intends to open offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and conduct energy exploration of marine sanctuaries in both areas, despite warnings by national security experts. Amidst concerns that the Trump administration would be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration at the 10th Arctic Council meeting in May, which recognizes the importance of the Paris agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, before passing the chairmanship to Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini. Shortly after however, the earlier contradiction was compounded by President Trump’s announced withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement on June 1st, a decision that the Arctic community has criticized. In comparison, China has been steadily developing their polar research capacity and investments over the past few decades, and gained observer status to the Arctic Council in 2013. China’s interest in the region ranges from scientific research, to trade and transport, fisheries, tourism, and of course developing future resources. Two questions must now be asked; what remains of US leadership in the region, and what is the role that China has been building for itself?

While the US moves to exploit domestic resources, and alienates allies by ignoring accepted international norms and even market cues, China has been carefully crafting its narrative as a “near-Arctic State” and through intricate networks of cooperation, is boosting the local economies of its partners while providing jobs for Chinese workers overseas.

The US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is built on the promise of re-starting discussions of a more “fair” deal for the American people, justifying itself with a critique of the financial and economic cost, and sidelines global warming and its greater implications, putting it at odds with the rest of the Arctic community. In contrast, the Chinese model has steadily progressed by building its Arctic portfolio with a lot of green – emphasizing their desire to put the environment first by funding scientific research projects aimed at climate studies and sustainable development, and through multi-billion acquisitions, investments, and joint ventures with Arctic Council countries. While the US moves to exploit domestic resources, and alienates allies by ignoring accepted international norms and even market cues, China has been carefully crafting its narrative as a “near-Arctic State” and through intricate networks of cooperation, is boosting the local economies of its partners while providing jobs for Chinese workers overseas. Does American energy independence (“America First”) have a place in the emerging leadership of the Arctic and can it address the issue of social responsibility in a global age?

Energy Security vs. Independence

Many have written about the Arctic being the next frontier and describe it not only as an area for international cooperation, but also as a potential flashpoint for conflict over the vast resources that it holds. Ever since the 2008 study by the US Geological Survey (USGS), which identified the Arctic as containing an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil resources, and 30% of its yet-to-be discovered natural gas resources, there has been increased interest in the region by extra-territorial players. The price of oil however, has hovered around $50/barrel, which makes further exploration and development of the region costlier in comparison to cheaper alternatives that have since come online, and changing market dynamics for motor vehicles and the falling costs of renewable energies might even further disrupt expected demand. Although China has been clear about its desire to peacefully develop resources in the Arctic, US strategy should not focus solely on the myth of “energy independence” but rather on energy security and the greater security paradigm if it wants to remain a relevant leader. From an energy perspective, as Rex Tillerson shared in 2013 when he was still CEO of ExxonMobil, better supply management by building interconnectivity among countries and their energy markets helps improve stability through mitigating risks.

Securing the Melting Artic

The Arctic is not just a matter of resources, but is a challenge to national and human security, and all countries must work with the goal of preventing a race towards a zero-sum game. Several experts have analyzed China’s interests and involvement in the Arctic, and though its actions are said to be in the spirit of cooperation and "win-win" mentality, they intersect with several geopolitical considerations. Global warming and the resulting climate changes are hastening the pace of glacial melting, and expose new possibilities in the region. What was once un-crossable and difficult terrain is now becoming open water and traversable. With technology and research being directed towards resource extraction solutions and navigation, the potential for infrastructure development and exploitation is no longer in the distant future. China has contributed towards the acceleration of the knowledge available on the Arctic, and its joint work and investments give it a pathway to hold a more serious stake in the region. To ensure that everyone is “winning” in the Arctic, it is therefore crucial for the US to first emphasize the rule of law as the enforcement mechanism of managing relationships and collaboration in the region.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly with regards human security, is to protect the rights of indigenous populations and their way of life. Brookings has released several reports on the consequences on indigenous communities in the Arctic and the potential for their displacement. Additionally, the number of environmental migrants due to natural disasters and rising water levels are expected to increase, and must also be managed. Military leaders around the world have already connected climate change as a driver of instability in conflict areas and the current European migration crisis, and Brig Gen Stephen Cheney, a member of the US Department of State’s foreign affairs policy board and the CEO of the American Security Project, warned last year that climate change would be costly and that “The best way to pay for it is by tackling the root causes of climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not, the national security impacts will be increasingly costly and challenging.” Heightened health risks related to climate change are also a growing concern.

Legal Legitimacy & Scientific Cooperation

Moving forward, if the US wants to have a constructive say in future Arctic matters, it must reinforce its support of cooperating in the region on a legal basis, and provide greater support for shared scientific research and exploration. When first looking at military concerns, the US currently remains the only Arctic Council country that has still not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which even China has ratified and acknowledges. UNCLOS is currently the only “international governing instrument that covers the Arctic” and a Council on Foreign Relations report recommends not only its ratification, but also the appointment of an Arctic ambassador, and urges the construction of ports and ice breaking ships. By ratifying the convention, it would both aid US leadership in the Arctic, and bolster the US’ involvement in the South China Sea conflict.

Technologically, the US has trailed behind Russia, an Arctic Council member, and China, who has invested in maintaining and upgrading their icebreaking fleets, with the US Coast Guard only now testing models to begin building in 2020. China and Russia have also enhanced their research knowledge and skills in the region through academic partnerships and joint research institutes, where the US has little, if no, representation. President Trump’s budget proposal for the Coast Guard has been ambiguous with current funding levels already too low to support crucial activities, and although he pledged to build new icebreaker ships during the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement in May, funding details have still not been clarified. The 2020 timeline was initiated during former President Obama’s push for a new ice breaking ship, which he had linked to climate change hastening access to the region. The Coast Guard currently only operates one heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star (commissioned in 1976) and one medium ice breaker, the Healy, but with the time needed to build a new ice breaker, the US will face a gap in capability. Russia maintains a fleet of 40 icebreakers and has several more under-construction that are larger in size with new technological capabilities. China also recently upgraded its icebreaker, the Xue Long (1993) and began domestic construction of a new civilian vessel at the end of 2016, which will be managed under the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC) with expected completion by 2019, in coordination with a Finnish technology company.

The Arctic is not just a matter of resources, but is a challenge to national and human security, and all countries must work with the goal of preventing a race towards a zero-sum game.

            In education and research, President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal had deep cuts to numerous science agencies and to funding for higher education. China has instead been increasing the number of Arctic-dedicated academic programs and is establishing research centers domestically and through international collaborations such as the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center, and has an active polar research station in Norway.

           

Make American Leadership “Great” Again

The US retreat from the Paris Accords has penalties greater than simply economic and financial concerns, and has instilled a lack of confidence in American leadership around the world. Historically, the US has been viewed as a champion of environmental standards and technological progress, but at current projections, the US will have a diminished role in the Arctic, especially if it cannot agree to the shared goals that the Arctic community and its observers consent to. While there are significant security issues that need to be addressed, the development of soft power areas is also needed to build legitimacy in the region through greater research and people-to-people exchange. Russia and China have been working together on numerous projects, including a Russia-China Cross Year of Media. Additionally, China continues to cultivate an international Arctic identity among its people.

asymmetry1.jpg
RIAC and CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program Report
A Roadmap for U.S.-Russia Relations

In working to strengthen partnerships, one potential avenue for further discussions will be the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue. While initial results from the inaugural May meeting include LNG trade access and the US recognition of China’s One Belt and One Road Initiative, the US must truly think more comprehensively and assert Arctic issues as part of the future agenda. In the meantime, China already has a FTA with Iceland, and since normalizing relations with Norway, has restarted FTA negotiations this year. Although China’s Arctic vision remains unstated, by successfully linking it to its increasingly accepted Belt and Road initiative, it connects a large infrastructure and development project that has transportation, trade, and energy implications on the Arctic, factors which all must be considered when creating environmental policy. Therefore, the US must clearly define their goals for the region, encourage greater cooperation, and champion US leadership in creating environmental standards and policies by supporting organizations like the EPA achieve its stated mission of protecting human health and the global environment.

The Arctic is a region where the US must keep an active seat at the table to hold any leadership power and manage the exploitation of resources, while safeguarding ocean navigation and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. Security in a globalized world requires balancing both national and human security through cooperation and investing in preventative strategies to protect against global concerns such as environmental disasters. Although the US has withdrawn from the Paris accords, the importance of environmental protection and alternative energies in relation to the Arctic must be prioritized. Looking ahead, Finland is the new chair of the Arctic Council, and already this year, China’s Sunshine Kaidi New Energy Group announced a billion-dollar investment in a new wood-based biodiesel plant in the country. For America to be “first”, it needs to be in the game, and in the Arctic playing field, it needs to accept the rules of climate change into its strategy and build a united front among business, research, and policy, in cooperation with the Arctic community, if it wants a winning chance.

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