Hello and welcome to Take Five’s special New Year edition! This week, we’re covering the top five Arctic stories to watch in 2017. Check out the top five Arctic stories of 2016 here.
Finland assumes the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council
The Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is set to pass from the United States to Finland in May 2017 at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. According to its Arctic Strategy, Finland’s priorities in the Arctic are to strengthen environmental protection, promote security policy stability, and enhance the vitality of the region. How those goals translate to its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council remains to be seen. Thus far, the Finnish government has stated that it will try to use the Chairmanship to promote the Paris Agreement on climate change, UN sustainable development goals, and the Arctic Economic Council (Finland.fi).
TAKE 1: Finland will be assuming the Chair at an interesting time for the Council. US President-elect Trump’s “first 100 days” will just be concluding and the new US Administration’s Arctic policies will presumably be coming into focus just as it relinquishes the Chair. One aspect of Finland’s Chairmanship to keep an eye on is how much it prioritizes its national goal of promoting security policy stability in the Arctic via the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council shies away from security policy coordination. But, given its history as a bridge between East and West and the probable warming of US-Russia relations, Finland may find itself well-positioned to tackle security in its Chairmanship. More immediately, the actual handover of the Chairmanship may also bear watching, as some observers have pegged the May 2017 Arctic Council Ministerial in Fairbanks as a potential setting for the first meeting between President Trump and President Putin (AD).
The Lifting of US Sanctions on Russia
Speaking of warming US-Russia relations, all signs point to a likely easing of US economic sanctions against Russia in 2017. A hypothetical lifting of US sanctions would likely mean a return of US companies and technology involved in Arctic Russian offshore energy projects. For example, in April 2016, the head of Exxon’s Russian operations stated that it would quickly return to its joint offshore projects in the Russian Arctic with Rosneft if and when US sanctions are lifted (Reuters).
TAKE 2: It is far from guaranteed that US sanctions against Russia will be lifted in the Trump Administration. Similarly, it remains to be seen if European Union sanctions are similarly lifted or adjusted. Nonetheless, a return of US/EU companies, technology, and financing could have a significant impact on the velocity of growth for Russian offshore energy development in the Arctic.
New Agreements in the Works
2017 may witness the signing of new international agreements further Arctic cooperation. All 8 Arctic Council members nations are expected to sign a formal, legally-binding treaty on Arctic scientific cooperation at the May 2017 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. A second arena that is prime for an agreement to be reached in 2017 is central Arctic fishing. Efforts to reach an agreement banning fishing in the High Seas “donut hole” at the center of the Arctic came up short in 2016 (AD). However, a fourth round of negotiations will take place in Iceland in early 2017 and observers are optimistic that a final agreement will emerge from the talks (TAJ)*.
TAKE 3: Constructing more tools, mechanisms, and incentives to further Arctic cooperation is rarely a bad thing. The Scientific Cooperation Treaty will be a nice capstone for the US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. While not negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council, reaching a formal moratorium on Central Arctic Ocean High Seas fishing would be a major accomplishment not just for environmental protection, but also for David Balton, the Chair of Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials during the U.S. chairmanship and an instrumental figure in developing the agreement.
Improved Internet Infrastructure
Phase 1 of the Quintillion Subsea Cable System in northern Alaska is expected to come online in early to mid 2017 (Quintillion). The Arctic subsea high-speed internet cable network will bring much needed high-speed bandwidth to the Alaskan communities of Nome, Kotzebue, Port Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, and Prudhoe Bay. Next up, Phase 2 will connect the subsea network to Japan and Phase 3 will extend the northern Alaska network to northern areas of neighboring Canada, including seven communities in Nunavut.
TAKE 4: This is what US Arctic infrastructure investment and development looks like, period. The Quintillion network becomes even more crucial after the Obama Administration’s Arctic offshore drilling ban largely put the kibosh on Arctic deepwater port development in northern Alaska (Forbes). Improved speed and bandwidth will do wonders in bringing the Lower 48 closer to the US Arctic and vice versa.
Chinese Arctic Involvement Draws Attention
2016 ended with a flurry of events related to China’s Arctic policies. In late October, the cornerstone was laid for a new joint Chinese-Icelandic science observatory in northern Iceland (AP). In December, construction began on a new Chinese polar icebreaker, the first such vessel to be produced domestically (MarEx). In the latter half of 2016 Chinese shipping giant COSCO also sent five vessels through the Arctic and reaffirmed its commitment to developing regular Arctic routes (IBO). Similar events will occur in 2017 that will continue to draw further attention to China’s polar activities.
TAKE 5: While the launch of a new icebreaker or the passage of a Chinese cargo vessel through the Northern Sea Route garners attention, it will likely take a more confrontational or controversial incident to spur greater public and media interest in Chinese Arctic policy. This is particularly true if the new US Administration intends to draw greater attention to China’s Arctic policies as yet another zone of confrontation between the US and China. What would such an incident look like in 2017? Naval maneuvers such the innocent passage of five Chinese warships in US territorial waters off the coast Alaska in September 2015 (WSJ) or the unexpected arrival of Chinese icebreaker Xue Long in the Canadian town of Tuktoyaktuk, NWT in the summer of 1999 (Cyropolitics) come to mind.
* The Arctic Journal (TAJ) went offline in June 2017.