As discussed in the CNA report and other sources, China has been aggressively seeking to purchase sites and finance and undertake large development projects in Canada, Greenland and Iceland for variety of sectors including oil and gas, mining, shipping/infrastructure, project finance and tourism. At face value this infusion of capital is great for entities that see Chinese money as a fresh new source of unfettered capital, but there are considerable downsides. China’s aspirations to potentially use the Arctic as a maritime superhighway exposes the classic free-rider problem when one of China’s underinsured ships vessels become involved in a casualty. China will self-righteously claim that these vessels carry the required insurance; however, the current IMO financial standards are grossly inadequate if a large vessel incident occurs in the Arctic Sea. The coastal countries would have to pay most of the cleanup costs (assuming cleanup is possible) and they have no power to prevent the passage of these underinsured vessels through international waters. There is a parallel problem of remoteness. For example, oil spills in Russia’s Komi Republic are frequent because of worn-out equipment and there are reports that some spills have not been detected for days after they occur. Some modern technology exists to detect spills, but the lack of response capacity in the region and the huge distances involved do not inspire confidence that industrial accidents near the sea will be immediately detected and responded to. Finally, as discussed in detail in the CNA report, there is a patchwork of laws and regulations governing extractive industries near the Arctic Ocean and few humans to monitor what is taking place. Countries like Greenland—that has vast land territories—does not have the sort of regulatory capacity necessary to monitor all of the extractive industry sites. Because development is new to the region and highly valued because of the near term economic benefits, it is questionable whether the local inhabitants even feel incentivized to closely regulate inbound FDI because of the promises fresh capital, jobs and infrastructure.
What Has the United States Done?
Many federal agencies have their Arctic policies replete with scientific data and stunning photographs. In the two years that the United States was the chair of the Arctic Council, U.S. representatives managed to champion an oil-spill response agreement (which commits nothing in terms of financial resources or regulatory action) and expanded search-and-rescue cooperation. These actions were positive and, perhaps, in the context of the years of political turmoil in the United States, understandable because the country is mired in one political controversy after another and the leadership, and media, seem incapable of grasping the strategic consequences of allowing China to have a free hand when it comes to shaping the destiny of the Arctic. And, by extension, its vast resources.
One thing positive that can be said about the U.S. actions in the Arctic, is that Secretary of State Tillerson seems to be the first senior official to finally recognize that China and Russia have their eyes on the Arctic because of its strategic location and vast resources and the United States is sitting on the sidelines. Tillerson correctly stated in an interview at the Wilson Center on November 28, 2017: “The Arctic is going . . . It’s going to be increasingly important in the future, particularly as those waterways have opened up. What I can tell you is the United States is behind. We’re behind all the other Arctic nations. They are—they have dealt with this. They’ve gotten way ahead of us. The Russians made it a strategic priority. Even the Chinese are building ice-breaking tankers. Now, why are they building icebreakers when they’re not an Arctic nation? Because they see the value of these passages. So we’re late to the game. I think we have one functioning icebreaker today. The Coast Guard’s very proud of it— (laughter)— as crummy as it is.”
Tillerson continued that the Arctic is vitally important to U.S. interests and the United States needs to work with other Arctic countries (not China) on international norms because there are gaps that have not been addressed in the past. Tillerson quite correctly said that the United States is “late to the game” because the United States could help shaped Arctic policy at the Arctic Council when the United States chaired the Arctic Council—from April 2015 until May of 2017—–in areas relating vessel safety, the standards for development near the coastline. For example, the Council could have enacted rules that would have ensured that foreign states, like China, that economically play in the Arctic post a bond for every project that they sponsor so that the developers can’t skip town when one of their ships has an accident or a project goes bust. Tillerson is also right that the Arctic is “vitally important” to our national security because there are vast amounts of mineral and hydrocarbon resources and this is a natural lure for miners, oil and gas companies, and shipping companies. These resources can also be a lure for more frequent presence of Chinese and other non-resident countries to dispatch military forces to the region to watch over the investments of their nationals. In the period that the United States led the Arctic Council until today, there has, with one small exception in the fisheries area, been no real progress in fixing the gaps in Arctic governance. The Arctic states were not content to wait on the United States, and most have seen fit to unilaterally develop their resources—often with Chinese money or technology—irrespective of the fact that some of the new projects may not reflect the latest technology or otherwise not be safe for the Arctic marine environment. So too, this growth in activity will result in considerable additional shipping (mostly underinsured) that will traverse U.S. waters. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic Ocean stays in the Arctic Ocean and affects multiple countries.
Where from Here?
There is no point in crying over spilt milk but the administration writ large needs to heed the warnings of Secretary Tillerson that the United States needs to be much more active in Arctic affairs on both a political and economic level. This includes a higher level of federal investment in such areas as icebreakers (some progress), deep-water ports, charting and mapping, navigational aids, maritime safety patrols, sensors and, most importantly, cooperative activities with the other states which share an Arctic coastline.
This inevitably calls into question activities and policies of Russia which has largest amount of infrastrastructure, industrial development and the longest coastline. Unfortunately, cooperation with Russia on almost any front has become near political suicide for U.S. policymakers even though the practical effect of U.S. political disengagement and sanctions is to push Russia and China closer together. This is unfortunate because it is widely reported that Russia would like to make its own decision on how its resources will be developed and is acutely sensitive to the inflows of Chinese investments because political influence may follow. The same thing can be said about Chinese investments in Greenland and Iceland. But, cheap money comes with a price. According to new reports coming out of Australia, that the aggressive lending of billions of dollars for various projects in the South Pacific has caused some Pacific Islands to be drowning in Chinese debt and forced enact dire austerity measures to pay for the costs of infrastructure projects. As reported in CNA’s FDI report, this situation is not unique; it has played-out before in other regions around the world including South Asia, Africa and South America.
That is not to suggest that development of Chinese FDI is something which the United States can or should try to stop. But, in the near term, the U.S. government (mostly State Department) needs to begin using its political clout in the Arctic Council, the International Maritime Organization, and in its bilateral relations to push the bordering countries to establish reciprocal rules of the game to ensure that development and shipping in that very harsh environment is carried out by financially responsible actors using the best available technology. And, as suggested in the CNA FDI Report, the United States should work with other genuinely Arctic countries immediately to establish an Arctic Development Bank (ADB) so that local communities in Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and the United States have an alternative to inexpensive Chinese Capital. At the risk of some oversimplification, the ADB’s lending terms need to be equal or better than the terms offered by China. Importantly, the financing instruments can contain mandatory development standards to ensure that project operators use appropriate technology, practices and insurance while regional standards are developed among the states.