August 18, 2011

In the Arctic and South China Sea, U.S. Policymakers to Grapple with Similar Challenges

As my short time here at CNAS is just about over – having focused
primarily on South China Sea research – it seems as though I will be leaving as
the oil and gas rich Arctic region revives a conversation about the High North with
some of the same strategic questions and concerns that are being raised in the
South China Sea.  

Earlier this week, the U.S. Navy task force for climate
change completed its latest assessment of the Arctic region. (The assessment is
part of a five-year plan, released in May 2009, to guide Navy policy, actions
and investment regarding the Arctic.) The findings in the report seem to
foreshadow a situation in the Arctic much like the one that is continuing to
develop in the South China Sea – a region where “nations
jockey for control of potentially lucrative resources buried beneath the ocean

In the past, we
had little need to go there [the Arctic]
,” explained Commander Blake
McBride, Arctic affairs officer for the climate change task force.  Over the past few decades, however, all
of this has changed. The “Arctic seas
have experienced major shifts in water mass property, circulation, sea-ice
coverage, and ecosystems”
and increased seasonal melting of the sea ice
raises strategic questions as well as regional and resource concerns.  The opening of the Arctic Ocean (which
as the report notes “could be
predominantly ice-free during the summer melt season in about 25 years
”) is
gaining attention worldwide as it offers access to rich oil and gas resources,
and potentially lucrative sea routes. According to the National Oceanographic
and Atmospheric Administration, “sea ice in the
Arctic Ocean hit the lowest monthly recorded level [this past July] in more
than three decades of record-keeping
.”  Increasing temperatures means less Arctic sea ice coverage,
which could portend new security challenges during the ice-free summer months,
including human trafficking, search and rescue missions, commercial sea travel
and oil and gas exploration.

According to McBride, “with Alaska’s
coastline, [the United States] can lay claim to roughly 200 thousand square
miles of territorial and exclusive economic zone waters
,” which the report
refers to as “significant
coastal waters for resource exploitation
.” As resource issues and other
related challenges stemming from environmental change in the world’s oceans
continue to shape the global security environment, the United States will have
to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas in order to lay claim to and
reap the benefits from its coastal waters, while enabling policymakers to
participate in international dialogues in regions like the South China Sea.
It’s a policy area I’m happy to say CNAS will continue to explore, and I look
forward to following along as I end my summer internship.