Official: Other Countries Are Questioning U.S. Commitment to the Arctic
Other countries are questioning the United States’ commitment to the Arctic, the former commandant of the Coast Guard said.
“I think most people look and they say, ‘What sort of resources are you devoting to the Arctic?’ And while we can’t get a replacement icebreaker built, when we haven’t been able to develop a [new] deep water port, when there are challenges with telecommunications and other things, people legitimately question our commitment,” said retired Adm. Robert Papp Jr., who is currently serving as the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic.
The U.S. recently took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an international body that focuses on issues of mutual concern to member states and other parties that have interests in the North, he said at an Aug. 18 appearance at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Despite the new leadership role, foreign officials from other Arctic countries have expressed concerns about U.S. investment priorities, Papp said.
He outlined several steps the United States could take to better secure its interests in the Arctic. Buying more icebreakers was at the top of his list. The Coast Guard has only two such ships in active service — the USCGC Polar Star and the USCGC Healy. The USCGC Polar Sea has been mothballed.
Other recommendations included building more deep water ports and upgrading telecommunications systems, he said.
A new icebreaker has been estimated to cost $1 billion. Papp noted that it is difficult to secure more U.S. government funding for Arctic assets in the current fiscal environment: “The federal budget is under a lot of pressure. Most of the things [needed] in the Arctic are new starts, and new starts are having a tough time.”
Meanwhile, the diplomat said other countries are preparing to take advantage of melting ice in the Arctic, which is expected to open up new sea routes for trade and other activities.
“China has a need for energy resources. And if you can bring them from the Barents Sea across the Northern sea route and save four, five or six days of transit time to get energy products to China, they’re going to take advantage of that,” Papp said. “That’s why they are building icebreakers. That’s why they are exploring. That’s why they are making scientific observations in the Arctic.”
During a panel discussion following Papp’s remarks, Luke Coffey, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, noted that Russia is also beefing up its presence and capabilities in the region.
“Russia is doing a lot to militarize the Arctic,” he said, including building and modernizing dozens of bases and conducting more military exercises. He noted Russia’s recent military actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
“When you … compare this [activity in the Arctic] to what Russia is doing in other places around the world … then we start questioning what Russia might do and what their true motives really are,” he said.
The U.S. and some of its NATO allies are lacking in military capabilities in the region, Coffey said.
“In the Arctic, sovereignty equals security. And that means respecting others’ sovereignty and that means being able to defend your own sovereignty. And I feel that the U.S. and some of our partners in Europe are far away from being able to fulfill that requirement,” he said.
Isaac Edwards, senior counsel for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the United States lags behind some of the other Arctic countries when it comes to economic development in the region.
“You don’t see that infrastructure in places like Alaska,” he said during the panel discussion. There “really are kind of two different Arctics, if you will, in terms of infrastructure development and what’s available for the people to use for economic activity. … There is still quite a bit of ways to go, at least from the U.S. perspective, on what we need to do to get to the same level as what some of the other countries already have.”
Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is trying to further institutionalize Arctic policy within the U.S. government, Edwards said. Encouraging public-private partnerships to foster economic and infrastructure development in Alaska is also needed, he added.