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How Changing Geography in the Arctic Poses a Challenge to American Economic and National Security

By: Jackson Garrity

Climate change is a major concern to U.S. national security interests.  Fifty percent of Department of Defense sites surveyed in a 2018 study reported damage to assets such as airfields, piers, and training areas because of climate change related effects.  According to the World Bank, natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes displaced an average of 26 million people internationally each year from 2008-2015, and such events are projected to become increasingly common and intense.  It appears that as the effects of climate change grow more intense, virtually every issue area falling within the scope of international relations will be affected.

For example, international trade will be greatly affected. A global rise in temperatures has led to the potential for new shipping routes which are likely to change the face of the international economy.  The most prominent such route is the Northern Sea Route, a pass directly through the Arctic which could greatly increase the efficiency of shipping in the Northern Hemisphere.  The route has opened largely because rising temperatures have led to a decline in Arctic ice, allowing for easier naval navigation of Arctic waters.

The route has already sparked significant interest from the world’s most powerful players.  Russia and the United States both have a clear interest in taking advantage of a new route located right in their backyard.  China has also expressed interest in dominating Arctic shipping, declaring in January that it is a “Near-Arctic State.”  While the exact meaning of the declaration is unclear, it shows an obvious interest on China’s part in exercising influence in the Arctic region.  The potential for three of the world’s most influential economic and military powers to increase their role in the region obviously has the potential to yield benefits for all involved.  However, there is also potential for dangerous confrontations at a time when U.S. relations with both China and Russia are tense.

To avoid confrontations with other powers, the United States must continue its efforts to normalize international recognition of freedom of navigation.  This can manifest itself in several ways.  First, the United States must make more efforts to deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.  China has shown flagrant disregard for the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that declared some of its broad claims over the South China Sea invalid.  The United States has done the right thing by stepping up freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). A similar approach could be taken in the Arctic to deter China and Russia from seeking to dominate new passageways.

In addition to taking deterrent measures, the United States should also seek to work with other actors in the region to set up mechanisms to resolve disputes peacefully.  This could involve lending greater attention to international forums such as the Arctic Council, but using existing structures would present a series of problems.  For example, China would have to be added to the Arctic Council, otherwise the body’s decisions would likely be seen as illegitimate.  Alternatively, the United States could work to establish a unique Arctic state organization which would focus primarily on territorial disputes.

Additionally, the United States should continue to foster the legitimacy of already existing international laws related to freedom of navigation.  Specifically, the United States should work with other nations and international bodies to ensure the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS)and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seaare respected.  COLREGS were written by the International Maritime Organization in 1972 and took effect in 1977.  They govern the behavior of all United Nations members states, including the United States, Russia, and China.  COLREGS establish the “rules of the road” for international commercial vessels and include important safety provisions designed to reduce the likelihood of collisions between ships belonging to different states.  These provisions serve to alleviate tensions and eliminate potential flashpoints for international conflict.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been approved by over 150 UN member states, including the United States, Russia, and China.  UNCLOS was designed to ensure freedom of navigation through international waters and prevent powerful states from attempting to dominate strategic waters to the detriment of the international community.  Among the most vital conditions enshrined in UNCLOS are provisions asserting that all states shall enjoy the traditional freedoms of navigation on the high seas and states are obliged to settle disputes concerning the interpretation of the convention through peaceful means.

In the time since these laws have been passed, the global community has enjoyed rapid economic development as a result of the free exchange of goods shipped by sea.  The United States, Russia, China, and other global actors have mutually benefited from their enforcement.  At a time when tensions are high, these laws can serve as powerful tools to reduce the likelihood of confrontations in the Northern Sea Route.  With careful planning and foresight, the United States can use its influence to foster a system of international laws and norms that will further peace, prosperity, and freedom throughout the changing Arctic region.


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