By Arab News
By James M Loy
President Barack Obama should be applauded for gathering world leaders in Anchorage this week for a US-led conference on “Global Leadership in the Arctic.”
Yet the summit’s limited focus on climate change, though undoubtedly important, belies the significance of the broader US interests and responsibilities in the Arctic region.
As ice turns to navigable ocean, the Arctic is becoming the US’ third great ocean border, creating vexing strategic challenges and unprecedented opportunities. These include not only climate change but threats to national sovereignty and security, revolutions in international commerce and a “Klondike”-like rush to control vast undersea resources.
The US Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas lie in the Arctic. The US has the potential to be the leader in responsible Arctic oil exploration, as its major oil companies maintain the technology and know-how to responsibly tap deep-sea Arctic oil, and could set a new global standard for responsible development and emergency response.
Yet the US is barely in the game, potentially allowing other nations to move in and develop these resources less safely. The opening of Arctic sea routes will cut transit times between Asian, US and European markets, reducing fuel costs and carbon emissions.
But growing traffic along these routes raises new questions of regulation and sovereignty. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he wants the Bering Strait to become the next Suez Canal, and that any ships passing over large swaths of the Arctic — even the North Pole — may be forced to pay transit fees to Russia.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Russia is investing aggressively in the Arctic: 95 percent of its gas reserves and 60 percent of its oil reserves are located in the region. It leads the world with 22 icebreakers and has restored Soviet-era airfields and ports.
China, which isn’t even an Arctic country, will have built two icebreakers by next year. The US Coast Guard, however, has two functioning icebreakers, and one of these vessels is already a decade past its intended 30-year life span.
The US needs to play catch up after decades of disengagement. This lack of leadership on a range of Arctic issues — from maritime border disputes to seabed claims — is amplified by the US Senate’s bizarre refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. More than 165 nations have signed onto the convention, which effectively governs territorial and commercial claims on the high seas, and has become the primary regime for arbitrating Arctic territorial claims. The US, however, is among the last holdouts refusing ratification, along with North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.
This failure to join the convention diminishes US credibility on issues in the Arctic that have tremendous strategic and economic implications. That is why every US president, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chief of naval operations and Coast Guard commandant since 1994 has called for accession to the treaty. The US once invested in more than 600 radar and weather stations extending from the Aleutian islands to Greenland. And it invested in strategic energy infrastructure such as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, recognizing that responsible Arctic development was central to the nation’s energy security.
Restoring the US to its historic role as an Arctic power will require a recognition of the complex and strategic issues at stake, long-term investment to improve Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, the adoption of the Law of the Sea convention to have an equal voice in the discussion and a fresh sense of urgency.