The end of the US chairmanship is not end of its interest in the region

Robert Papp, the former head of the US Coast Guard and now Washington’s special representative for the Arctic, is currently some 5,000 km from America’s Arctic.

Nevertheless, he, like the rest of the US delegation that is hosting the Senior Arctic Officials meeting in Portland, Maine, this week, believes that they have come to the right place to make the case for America as an Arctic state, and not simply a country with an Arctic state.

“As a country, we are disconnected, literally and figuratively, from our Arctic. It’s all Canada between us here in Maine and Alaska. The Canadians point out that their country is connected to the Arctic. Ours isn’t, and that means we have to continually focus on maintaining – or creating – a connection.”

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While bringing the Arctic to Maine this week is one of the most visible ways in which Washington has sought to raise awareness of the Arctic among Americans outside Alaska, the choice of Portland was far from random.

“There is a very practical reason: if the Northwest Passage opens up, Portland is the first major port in the United States,” Mr Papp says.

Five years ago, that port was in a state of disrepair. Fishing, tourism and other marine businesses continued to support jobs, but the number was shrinking. At its lowest point, the decline had become so steep that most city residents had come to associate the city’s container terminal as the place where snow was dumped the winter.

That has all changed since 2013 and the decision by Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping line, to use the city as its sole American port. Eimskip’s arrival has prompted major renovations of the waterfront, but its container shipping service is orientated towards the north-east – Iceland, Greenland and northern Europe – not the north-west. Still, Mr Papp sees the company’s choice of Portland as an example of the potential that Arctic shipping has for non-Arctic regions.

“Eimskip came in and said ‘yeah, that’s the closest port to us in Iceland. We can use it to ship the things we need from the US and we can ship things we want to sell to the US’. Maine seized on the economic opportunity that offered, and that’s something we can use to bring attention to what we’re doing to show people the opportunities there are in the Arctic.”

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Shipping, whether it is Eimskip’s arrival or the boom in Arctic shipping that proponents say is just around the bend, has been a major topic of discussion in Portland this week. The enthusiasm has been further buoyed by talk of the Polar Code, a set of international guidelines for sailing in the Arctic and Antarctic. Adopted in recognition that traffic in both regions stands to increase, the Polar Code comes into effect on January 1 and shipping firms (aided by an underbrush of service companies) are steadily working to ensure they will comply by the deadline.

So far, Arctic shipping, especially in the Northwest Passages, which remains heavily clogged with ice during summer months, is an opportunity that is primarily theoretical in nature. Slow growth, however, has not stopped shipping nations from touting its benefits as a potential shortcut that could save weeks of sailing compared with routes through the Suez or Panama canals.

Especially China has proved itself an eager proponent of Arctic shipping. Starting in 2013 Cosco, a state-controlled shipping firm, has been involved in gradually more ambitious efforts to sail and ship goods on the Northern Sea Route. In April, Beijing sought to open shippers’ eyes to the potential of Northwest Passages by publishing a 365-page handbook offering guidelines for navigating the waterway.

China’s increasing presence on Arctic routes has been raised security concerns in some corners. Mr Papp, admits that he, like others in Washington, was once suspicious of Beijing’s intentions. Now, he says he is past such worries.

“There was a time when China was showing up in a lot of very interesting places, like Iceland, Greenland and the Nordic countries. And we were assigning bad intent to everything they were doing,” he says. “In the last couple of years, what I have discovered is that China is interested in its own prosperity.”

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Expanding its Arctic shipping, he argues, is a sign China is “thinking ahead”, and consistent with what it is doing to ensure its access to other shipping lanes.

China, he notes, invested in the widening of the Panama Canal, which in turn required its shippers to build a new class of ships. All this to save less than a week to bring cargo to the US east coast. A similar pattern, he believes, is playing out in the Arctic. There, though, the time savings could be twice as great, Mr Papp says.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. It is impossible to dispute that the Arctic, in many cases, provides a shorter route, but the region lack population centres that container ships can call on along the way, something the industry relies on to make operations profitable.

Another mark against Arctic shipping is that ships must sail more slowly, because the routes are often poorly mapped, and they still are subject to ice hazards. Both factors raise the cost of insuring vessels.

“Shippers want predictability, and that’s the argument against Arctic shipping,” Mr Papp says. “But we’re seeing China build ice-strengthened container ships and ice-strengthened LNG tankers. If they are building these types of ships, it leads me to believe that China is convinced that these waterways will continue to open. That is why they are investing.”

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This week marks the start of the final stretch for the US chairmanship. Washington will hand over the reins of the Arctic Council to Finland in May, during the organisation’s biennial summit, being held this time in Fairbanks.

Helsinki, diplomats said this week, was due to present its proposal for its chairmanship agenda today, during the last day of the Portland meeting. The next step is for the council to reach a consensus on which elements will form the final programme for the 2017-2019 chairmanship.

Washington’s own goal as it heads toward Fairbanks is to make sure the meeting and the handoff are as smooth as possible. Mr Papp says much effort is also going into making sure that the next administration keeps up the momentum the Obama administration has built up on Arctic issues, not least after the president visited Alaska in connection with last year’s Glacier conference.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Arctic has climbed up the list of priorities,” Mr Papp says. “I’ve been told by a senior White House official that it became personal for President Obama during the three days he spent in Alaska.”

This, Mr Papp says, has since been reflected in recent proposals by the White House: icebreaker construction, funding for mapping and surveying, support for communities that will need to be relocated as the effects of climate change set in.

“We are making progress. Now our focus is to get our next secretary of state to the ministerial. It’s not a foregone conclusion that the secretary of state attends. It’s only been done twice: Secretary Kerry and then-secretary Clinton. Whether the next one goes remains to be seen.”

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When the US closes the books on its second chairmanship, the marquee accomplishment, according to Mr Papp, willbe the Arctic Science Co-operation Agreement, which will grant scientists easier access to Arctic countries and research results. As only the third binding agreement in the history of the council (the other two relate to search and rescue and responding to oil spills), he considers the agreement to be “huge”.

Equally important for the future of the council itself has been Washington’s efforts to ensure greater consistency from one chairmanship to the next. This, Mr Papp says, began by picking long-term projects for the US term that were likely to be continued during later chairmanships.

“One of the criticisms that I have levelled towards the Arctic Council is that they don’t think strategically enough. We constantly look back. We congratulate ourselves on our 20th anniversary, and rightly so, but we also need to ask what we want to be celebrating 20 years from now? So that’s been our goal: how many of our projects will the Finns continue during their chairmanship. And I’m led to believe already that there is going to be a significant number.”

One way in which Washington’s chairmanship has stood out from the approach other countries have taken has been its efforts to organise Arctic-related events independently of the Arctic Council.

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Most recently, Washington hosted an Arctic Science Ministerial meeting, attended both by countries and organisations that belong to the Arctic Council as well as a number of those that do not. Similar initiatives include the Glacier conference, and the on-going talks to establish a moratorium on fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

Diplomats in Washington, as well as experts on Arctic issues, say the two-track approach is a reflection of America’s international approach to the region. This, they say, stands in contrast to a country like Canada, which considers Arctic issues to be primarily a domestic concern.

Even with the initiatives, Washington remains committed to supporting the Arctic Council as the primary forum for Arctic states and indigenous peoples to discuss matters of mutual concern, Mr Papp underscores. Setting up other forums where other countries can take part, is, as he says, a way to recognise that what happens in the rest of the world has an impact on the Arctic.

“At the end of the day, there are only eight countries that have sovereign responsibilities in the area. So we would be short-sighted not to involve as many countries as possible in this discussion, and that’s exactly what they did with the science ministerial.”

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Organising events that invite non-Arctic states to take part, he argues, follows the same philosophy as holding the Senior Arctic Officials meeting in Portland.

“We need other countries to buy in, just like the United States needs all of its citizens all of the 49 states other than Alaska to get engaged and involved.”

Bringing the Arctic closer to the world, one initiative at at time.

File photo: Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström