With concerns that an international free-for-all might be emerging during President Donald Trump's approach to asserting his will with the NATO member states, another issue that requires multilateral agreement and action is unfolding — this time in the Arctic region.
Satellite measurements during the past 30 years show a rapid decline in Arctic sea ice. The reduction in year-round and summer ice is creating open water, drawing increasing investments by commercial interests, particularly shipping and its related oil and gas ventures.
A seeming rejection or reconsideration by the president of the post-World War II international order comes as a critical moment for new approaches to Arctic policy.
During the Cold War, the Arctic region was geopolitically vital to both the Soviet Union and the U.S., as armed bombers and submarines criss-crossed both below the polar ice and in the skies above. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arctic practically vanished in terms of strategic significance. Now, nearly three decades later, with sea ice in retreat, the Arctic region is opening as a commercial and geostrategic hub with complex challenges for both the U.S. and the Russian Federation.
As the Arctic region moves from the periphery closer to the center of international interest, it is imperative that Presidents Trump and Vladimir Putin take time during the Helsinki summit to launch a vital conversation about what an appropriate Arctic security architecture might be – and, what other nations, beyond the Arctic coastal states, should be part of that conversation.
Security issues are likely to heighten in the high North as shipping and energy development accelerates along with broader commercial interests. A significant component of the unfolding events is the diminishment of sea-ice in what will become the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean – a Mediterranean sized – and currently frozen – sea. As one of the planet's most pristine bodies of water it will require governance, marine environment protection and security as vessels, in due course, traverse the North Pole.
Governance of a new ocean, economic stability and preventing mishaps offer several reasons for a collaborative Arctic regional security architecture. First, Russian interests. Russia is the high North nation with jurisdiction and sovereignty over the largest territorial and offshore span, and with the greatest Arctic engagement. Its long-term billion dollar strategic plan for the Arctic, announced in 2013, is unfolding. The Kremlin's plans includes government support for oil and gas development, an upgrade of ten deep water ports capable of search and rescue operations, spill response and capabilities for destinational and international shipping, enabled by a fleet of some 41 ice breakers and ice-capable support ships.
While some Western skeptics view Russia's 2014 creation of its Arctic-focused Joint Strategic Command based in its Northern Fleet as a "Ukrainization" of the Arctic, the Kremlin's view of its dual use and military ships, expressed by several academics, is to protect Russia's growing economic and security interests that "hinges" on the Arctic. Russia's relationship to the Arctic has long been one of strategy, cooperation and a leading role in creating and adhering to international legal standards, such as the United Nations Law of the Sea where it involves Arctic matters.
However, beyond the need to protect its increasingly vulnerable northern border, international tit-for-tat has crept through. Russian aerial training or intentional buzzing of the Alaska Coast along with U.S. jets scrambled in the international skies offer another reason for a security architecture to avoid potential mishaps or misunderstandings.
The region is getting crowded. Calling itself a "near Arctic state," China's growing prominence due to its well-financed shipping, science and energy investments, recently announced its Polar Silk Road strategy as a component of its wider economic Belt and Road initiative. China's Arctic initiative is being defined, in part, by its ice-capable container ships that have transited Russian and Canadian waters from the Pacific to Atlantic. Further, China's major stake, a billion-dollar investment, in Russia's Yamal liquefied natural gas project reflects the envisioned scale of its long-term interests.
The U.S. is an Arctic nation by virtue of Alaska. However, no significant Congressional or private capital has yet been obligated to build a high north deep-water port to accommodate the traffic that is likely to come. Only one functional icebreaker exists for the U.S. – with recent authorization for a second. Yet, while diminished commercial interest currently plagues Alaska following the earlier drop in the price of oil, this is likely to change as the price of oil increases and oil and gas fields – both on and offshore – are more accessible.
The governance and security issues that are emerging in the high North, whether constabulary or military, must improve direct dialogue between the U.S. and Russia, both to minimize military risk and to clarify how the region will be protected as it opens to international shipping and commerce. Cooperation and a degree of interoperability between the U.S. and Russian Coast Guards, particularly across the Bering, has generally been resilient to tensions in other parts of the world.
The Department of Defense, in its 2016 Report, noted that it preferred a new yet "small footprint" in the Arctic region as a "wide range of challenges and contingencies" are likely to unfold. The report most notably described the necessity that "alliances and strategic partnerships" are the defining feature of Arctic security.
Alaska maintains two large national air bases that houses combat and some 200 long-range maritime patrol aircraft. At a recent stopover, the Associated Press reported Defense Secretary James Mattis said of the region, the U.S. has to "up its game" as shipping lanes increase along with sea ice retreat.
Presidents Trump and Putin must start the conversation on an Arctic-wide security architecture. A solid cooperative backdrop to a new regional security arrangement are a combination of Russian- and U.S.-backed Arctic treaties for search and rescue, spill response, illegal and unregulated fishing and the Arctic regional Coast Guard agreements. Further, the recent approval by the International Maritime Organization of a joint U.S.-Russia agreement on forthcoming rules for Bering Strait shipping lanes set the stage for a larger region-wide security architecture.
A new security architecture would offer the stability necessary to support the investments, shipping and sustained and sustainable commerce that is likely to continue to emerge. Tero Vauraste is the CEO of the Finnish icebreaker-building company Arctia and current chairman of the Arctic Economic Council, which is linked to the eight-nation collaborative Arctic Council. He offered a view that might help give shape to the summit. Vauraste said a discussion between the two presidents should include a cooperative and more efficient use of existing resources, including icebreakers for governance, monitoring and safety that the CEO says "could be up and running within weeks."
Such a rethinking could help focus a regional security agenda, prevent spillover from other global concerns, and just maybe, encourage voices from what has long been called the "zone of peace" to give shape to a sorely needed policy discussion.
It's worth a try by the president of the world's largest economy and the president of the world's largest Arctic nation. Given the interests at stake, it just might work.
Anita L. Parlow, Esq., is a recent Fulbright scholar in Iceland, team lead for the inaugural Woodrow Wilson Polar Code Roundtable Project and advisor for the Harvard–MIT Arctic Fisheries Project. Parlow has advised corporations, NGOs and international agencies on corporate social responsibility and environmental and community risk.
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