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  September 1st, 2015 | Written by

Arctic Summit is About More Than Climate Change

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  • Climate change has brought about new issues, many of them important to trade and transportation.
  • The Russian president wants to charge a fee to ships traversing the Bering Strait.
  • The U.S. has only two icebreakers in its inventory, the same as Estonia.

When President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit north of the Arctic Circle yesterday, it was climate change that was on his mind. Obama declared the Arctic to be “on the front lines” of that issue.

But climate change has brought about a whole new set of issues, many of them important to trade and transportation, as well as national security.

As the Arctic Ocean warms and its ice melts, it represents an increasingly viable trade route, with the potential to cut transit times between Asian, U.S. and European markets, reducing fuel costs and carbon emissions. A vessel navigating the northern route from Shanghai to the U.S. east coast would shave days off its voyage, as compared to transiting the Panama Canal.

The Russians have recognized the strategic importance of the Arctic and have begun to invest in infrastructure that would assure their dominance of the region. That is understandable: the Russian Arctic produces 20 percent of Russian GDP and 22 percent of its exports.

The Putin government also has its eyes on the Arctic as a revenue generator. The Russian president wants to charge a fee to ships traversing the Bering Strait.

China—not an Arctic country—also has its eyes on the north. The Chinese are building a second icebreaking vessel to clear shipping lanes and exploration areas. Once built, the Chinese icebreaking fleet will equal that of the United States.

That’s right, the U.S. Coast Guard has only two icebreakers in its inventory, the same as Estonia. The Russians have a fleet of 22 icebreakers. Clearly, the U.S. has fallen behind securing its interests in the Arctic.

And the interests are there. The U.S. Geological Survey says that substantial undiscovered oil and natural gas deposits lie in the Arctic. By turning its attention to the Arctic, the U.S. could be the leader in responsible exploration and development.

The lack of U.S. leadership in this area is exemplified by the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). More than 165 nations have signed onto the convention. The U.S. refusal to do so puts it in the same class as holdouts North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.

Every U.S. president since Clinton has endorsed ratification of the convention and the George W. Bush administration aggressively advocated its passage. U.S. policy since the Reagan administration has held that UNCLOS reflects customary international law. Yet the last time the treaty was brought to the Senate floor, in 2012, 34 Republicans voted against it, blocking the necessary two-thirds required for ratification.

The convention would comprehensively regulate all aspects of the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean. The treaty includes provisions relating to navigational rights, territorial sea limits, passage of ships through narrow straits and coastal areas, economic jurisdiction, exploitation of continental shelf resources, protection of marine life and the environment, and a binding procedure which includes an international appeals tribunal for settlement of disputes.

Proponents claim the treaty promises the U.S. military full freedom of navigation on the high seas and in straits and coastal waterways. Ratifying the treaty could also allow the U.S. to gain new ocean territory twice the size of California. Opponents justify scuttling the accord saying the international dispute tribunal would compromise U.S. sovereignty.

But the refusal to ratify the treaty does more to undermine U.S. interests in the Arctic, as other countries diligently build internationally recognized claims in the region. As a non-party to the treaty, the U.S. doesn’t have a seat at the table. The risks of not being a party to the convention outweigh the risks of joining.


Peter Buxbaum is web editor of Global Trade.