America lags behind in international race to claim spoils of warming Arctic

By Peter Huck

The US Coastguard has three ice-breakers in contrast to Russia's patrols of the Northern Sea Route.
The US Coastguard has three ice-breakers in contrast to Russia's patrols of the Northern Sea Route.

Climate change collided head-on with international diplomacy when US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a speech at an international security forum in Halifax, Canada. Hagel was there to reveal the Pentagon's new "Arctic Strategy", a rather belated recognition climate change is upending geopolitical certainties in the polar region.

Noting "unprecedented levels of human activity", in the Arctic, Hagel said the US would strengthen military ties with other Arctic states, including Russia, with whom the US has common regional interests.

That activity is made possible by climate change and Hagel said cascade effects fed "global instability, hunger, poverty and conflict". The US would protect its sovereignty in Alaska and, using international law, work to preserve the freedom of the seas as new polar sea routes emerged.

Hagel's speech coincided with the escalating crisis in the East China Sea, where this week the US ordered a pair of B-52 bombers to fly over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands - to which Japan and China both claim ownership - to underline Washington's commitment to the freedom of navigation.

The lesson was clear. Freedom of navigation is a universal law, applicable just as much in the East China Sea as the Arctic, where China is an "Arctic stakeholder," one of several powers eyeing a bonanza of oil, gas, minerals and fish stocks, tourism opportunities and new trade routes.

The Northern Sea Route, which traverses Russia's Arctic littoral, is a boon to China, cutting fuel costs and time in trade with the West. Last year 46 ships made the trip. This year about 400 will follow. Scientists anticipate the route could be ice free during summer by 2030.

"You can't support freedom of navigation and co-operation in the Arctic and then turn around and announce a large part of the world's oceans are yours, to be governed however you decide," says Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, apropos the East China Sea.

Although Hagel was keen to stress peace and co-operation, the Arctic Strategy admits the rush to grab economic spoils as the ice melts could fuel polar conflict. "A flood of interest in energy exploration has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues," Hagel noted. In the past the race to exploit frontiers had provoked conflict, he said. "We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic."

Although nuclear submarines roamed the Arctic deep in the Cold War, and the Defence and Early Warning system watched for Soviet missiles, the region was marginal to Pentagon thinking. Today, the US is ill-equipped to respond to strategic challenges posed by an open-water Arctic, even though a 2009 presidential directive, NSPD-66, stressed "freedom of the seas" there.

The Pentagon lacks ships with strengthened hulls - the US Coast Guard has three icebreakers, one of which was mothballed and is being refitted - search and rescue backup and communications gear. The nearest deepwater port is the USCG base at Kodiak Island off southern Alaska.

In contrast, Moscow mounts naval patrols on the Northern Sea Route, is building up assets and plans to reactivate a major Soviet-era base in the New Siberian Islands. The Arctic is key to Russia's economy. Besides exploiting oil and gas deposits, Moscow envisages a string of ports to serve the Northern Sea Route and access Siberia's rich mineral deposits. The Arctic is vital to Moscow's dream of forging a rival bloc to the European Union, a tug of war playing out in the Ukraine. "Russia is an Arctic superpower," says Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "It owns over 50 per cent of the Arctic coastline. They have very ambitious plans - mostly aspirational now - to develop their resources and the shipping route. The Arctic is very much about Russia's future, and I think over the past 12 months Moscow has become a bit more nationalistic in tone."

This may help explain Russia's seizure of Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise. Another protest incident might test the US freedom of navigation pledge. "The Russians seized the Arctic Sunrise in international waters," says Ebinger, "It's clearly questionable practice under international law."

Russia has rejected a Hamburg tribunal that ordered Moscow to release the ship and detainees - most have been bailed - after Holland, with whom the ship is flagged, brought a case using the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Russia recognises the convention but said the tribunal had no jurisdiction.

Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark are also to extend their continental shelves and claim resources. In 2007 Russia planted its flag on the Arctic sea floor to bolster its territorial claim, a stunt China replicated in the South China Sea in 2010.

Polar governance is provided by the Arctic Council, which represents the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, via Greenland, Iceland, Finland and Norway, along with indigenous people such as the Inuit. India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and several EU nations, including the UK, which sees itself as a business "hub" for polar oil and gas exploration, have permanent observer status on the council.

Emerging powers such as China, which sent an icebreaker through the region last year, are forging a "global Arctic," according to the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and the shift from sustainable development to "environmentally challenging" oil, mineral and fish exploitation threatens indigenous peoples and the power of small states.

Meanwhile, concern is growing the remote region has inadequate search and rescue resources to cope with disaster as more people venture into the Arctic.

So far, safety has been rather ad hoc, says Conley. Cruise ships in Greenland must sail in tandem, with each vessel acting as a potential evacuation site. "I think the other major concern is obviously potential tanker traffic. There's fear an incident could devastate the region."

Then there are disasters caused by climate change, such as the steady inundation of Inuit villages in Alaska and elsewhere by rising sea waters.

In each case the military is likely the go-to agency for disaster relief.

Outlining a new strategy is one thing. Giving it teeth another. How much does the Arctic really mean to US taxpayers? The remote region is not central to US ideas of a 21st century economy, as it is to Moscow. The Pentagon says Arctic threats are at a "low level". But will the US sit on the sidelines of an Arctic boom?

- NZ Herald

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