July 12, 2012

Moving to Cooler Temperatures

As we in the United States are struggling with massive heat waves, others are moving to cooler temperatures – including the Chinese.  Last week, the Chinese icebreaker, Xue Long, (“Snow Dragon”) departed on a three month Arctic expedition (its fifth Arctic expedition).  Along the way, the Xue Long will conduct scientific experiments and study the effects of changes in the Arctic ecosystem on climate. The fifth voyage of the Snow Dragon will be its longest and farthest to date and its first attempt through the Northern Sea shipping route. According to the Chinese National Antarctic Research Expedition (CHINARE), scientists will be studying sea ice in and around the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, the Bering Strait, Canada Basin, and the Mendeleev Ridge.  After traversing through the Arctic Ocean, Xue Long will sail to Iceland for a research visit which underscores the growing cooperation between Iceland and China. (During Premier Wen Jiabao’s April visit to Iceland, the two countries signed a geothermal energy accord.)


China’s growing relationship with Iceland is an example of yuan diplomacy moving North.  In recent years, China has aggressively pursued a strategy of ‘yuan diplomacy’ in Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its interests?  Energy, natural resources and land to support continued domestic expansion.  As Chinese expert David Curtis Wright recently asked, “It is unlikely that a superpower like China would pay such close attention to a small, cash-strapped state like Iceland unless there was something really big in it for China: the Arctic.”

Already, China, which seeks permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, has launched an aggressive diplomatic strategy to make its case with the permanent members of the Arctic Council.  Reports indicate that Iceland, Finland, and Sweden (which has deepened economic and trade ties with China in recent years) are quite favorable to China’s request.    

Even if, as Linda Jakobson of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute purports, Chinese officials have adopted a cautious “wait-and-see” approach, they appear, to their credit, to have a clear, focused strategy for moving forward and taking advantage for potential opportunities in the Arctic, if and when they arise.

Unfortunately, the Chinese Arctic strategy seems to provide a stark contrast to U.S. strategy (or lack thereof) in the Arctic. The anticipation that the private sector energy behemoth Royal Dutch Shell will break ground this summer in the Arctic (Chukchi and Beauforts Seas) has highlighted the absence of a strong national Arctic strategy that outlines the U.S. role in managing the economic, military and scientific development in the Arctic.

The frustration and calls for an integrated Arctic strategy and policies are coming from many camps. Absent are ground rules for development and more funding for infrastructure and national security, and more explicit protections for the ecosystem and biodiversity, upon which many Native populations depend for food and economic livelihood.  One of the most vocal critics of the status quo Arctic policy is Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who stated, "As an Arctic nation, I think the United States needs to be more aggressive," she said. "When we talk about an Arctic policy, it really needs to be more than just, 'How are we going to fund a new icebreaker?' I want us to assume the role of a lead nation on the Arctic issues that are important to the United States and important to the Arctic region as a whole."

Stating what many of us who study the Arctic already know, Fran Ulmer, chairman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and former Alaska lieutenant governor, stated, "Canada, Norway and Russia have developed strategies that define cohesive plans of action to allocate funding and resources to pave the way for Arctic development. "Given how rapidly the private sector and the international business community is moving forward in the Arctic, I think the time is now -- or maybe slightly past due -- for the U.S. to focus on designing a way that we move forward." 

Once we figure out what our national Arctic strategy should be, the stakeholders can then have a meaningful conversation about the range of capabilities (i.e. military, technology, scientific) that we will need to execute our mission. Clearly, as other nations move to cooler areas, we need to turn up the heat on developing an Arctic strategy. These days, this shouldn’t be too hard to do. 

Photo: Chinese Icebreaker Xue Long, “Snow Dragon.”Courtesy of Timo Palo and WikiCommons.