The China-U.S. relationship is a daily and recurring, sometimes dominant, news story. Select news has been positive and indicates close collaboration, such as the November 2014 joint announcement on climate and energy initiatives. Other news is more worrisome and ominous. Recent concerns for China’s actions in the South China Sea, cybersecurity, and devaluation of the yuan are serious matters of domestic and international security.
With China’s presence more visible on every continent including Antarctica, is there room for Sino-U.S. areas of cooperation at the top of the world? The Nordic states and Canada have already established Arctic policy and research ties to China. With the U.S. chairing the Arctic Council through May 2017, now is the opportune occasion for the U.S. to develop a collaborative strategy, on a range of Arctic research and policy issues.
There are three approaches for engagement. One, add focused, strategic Arctic issues to the established U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a longer-term approach. Second, and potentially effective in the near-term, leverage the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with China on Arctic affairs while the U.S. is Arctic Council chair. Third, hold enhanced dialogue on Arctic issues between the two national delegations at meetings of the International Maritime Organization, World Meteorological Organization, and International Hydrographic Organization, among other institutions.
Five key areas of cooperation can enhance Arctic cooperation between the U.S. and China:First, since the Arctic is at the epicenter of climate change, Arctic climate change research and policy is a natural area of cooperation between our two countries. We are already addressing global climate change issues in our formal dialogue, so inserting Arctic issues such as black carbon from ship emissions and sea ice and glacier research should resonate with our ongoing discussions. Working together on WMO Arctic initiatives and the linkages of the polar regions to global change is another fruitful course ahead.
Second, focus joint discussions on Arctic marine safety and strategies to protect the Arctic marine environment. Implementation and future enforcement of the mandatory IMO Polar Code for ships operating in polar waters (to come into force Jan. 1, 2017) is a topic of national interest to both maritime states. Bilateral cooperation could also include identifying the range of marine conservation measures, such as marine protected areas, and studying how these measures might mesh with future commercial voyages in the Arctic Ocean.
Third, maritime law enforcement, specifically related to fisheries, in northern waters is of practical and operational concern. The two coast guards have agreements in place and have worked together in the Pacific; extending this enforcement collaboration builds trust and resilience when marine operations become more complex. An agreement signed in Oslo in July by the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the U.S.) barring their fishing fleets from the central Arctic Ocean will surely require the engagement of non-Arctic states who have deep-water fleets such as China. Engaging China early in Arctic fisheries discussions on a bilateral basis with the U.S., or among the Arctic five, can be an effective strategy to minimize future disagreements.
Fourth, the wide gap in Arctic marine infrastructure identified in the Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (2009) demands critical attention by the major maritime states. China-U.S. cooperation on infrastructure can identify potential public-private partnerships, discuss strategies for much-needed Arctic observing systems, and study port and maritime communications requirements. The U.S. can also foster China’s engagement within the Arctic Council on matters related to Arctic search and rescue, and Arctic oil spill preparedness and response, as it is plausible Chinese-flagged commercial ships will sail in Arctic waters.
Fifth, joint Arctic marine research is an arena with much promise. Joint oceanographic research between the U.S. and China would attain global attention and herald an era of close collaboration in Arctic Ocean research highly relevant to global climate change. Joint icebreaking research ship operations in Arctic ice-covered waters could provide unique and lasting cooperative experiences for the Chinese and American operating agencies, as well as key links between our research funding organizations.
China and the U.S. have an obligation and opportunity to work together on a range of cooperative issues to maintain the Arctic’s future as a peaceful, safe and secure region, as that new frontier opens. Both nations must be proactive in Arctic matters within their already existing dialogue and in international organizations including the Arctic Council.
David Slayton is research fellow, co-chair and executive director of the Arctic Security Initiative at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Lawson W. Brigham is distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study & Policy, and a member of Hoover’s Arctic Security Initiative.