Arctic Circle 2017: Expanded Vistas (and a Bigger Tent)

[Photo by M. Lanteigne]
This month marked the fifth annual Arctic Circle conference (13-15 October) at the Harpa conference centre in Reykjavík, and as with its previous iterations there was no shortage of topics for discussion and debate from speakers and experts from both within the Arctic regions and from numerous other parts of the world. This year’s event saw over two thousand participants from more than fifty countries in attendance. Topics ranged from current events such as ongoing climate change effects and scientific cooperation to emerging economic and social challenges posed by both the evolving environment of the region and expanded international attention to the growing importance of the circumpolar north in global affairs. The agenda this year was especially ambitious and included a large number of ‘pre-events’ such as panels on regional energy concerns and a World Council of Churches seminar on environmental affairs and responsibilities.

Leading off the plenary sessions was former Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the guiding force behind the creation of the Arctic Circle conferences in 2013 as a ‘Track II’ mechanism designed to include a greater number of peoples and governments in dialogue about the Arctic as the region continued to open up, as a result of eroding ice. Other preeminent Icelandic politicians also gave speeches during the opening plenaries of the conference this year, including current President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson.

Former President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson of Iceland [Photo by M.Lanteigne]
Taking a break from the election campaign, Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson also spoke at the event, noting Iceland’s commitment to clean energy and determination to combat climate change, noting that without such measures, ‘the ice in Iceland could largely disappear in one hundred years’, and the impact on Arctic societies would change in several drastic ways. He added that the economic opening of the Arctic Ocean would also lead to problems of pollution and safety, and thus required the striking of ‘the right balance between challenges and opportunities’ created by the region’s opening.

Among the other keynote speakers were Ms Ségolène Royal, former French Minister of Climate and the Environment and recently appointed Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic, and Mr Aksel Johannesen, Prime Minister of the Faroe Islands, who also spoke on regional environmental changes in the region. The Faroes, it was announced, will be hosting an Arctic Circle event in May 2018 in Tórshavn. Vladimir Barbin, Russia’s Arctic Ambassador, discussed a four-point approach to his country’s vision for the region, namely the ability to optimize Arctic resources for sustainable development for Russia, advocating peace and cooperation, preserving Arctic ecosystems, and developing the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the face of growing international interest in the use of that waterway for faster maritime transit. Other Russian representatives discussed the country’s developing icebreaker construction projects, the challenges of maritime navigation in the Bering Strait and other Arctic waterways, and the development of Russian shipping concerns.

From Canada, Premier Bob McLeod of the Northwest Territories spoke about the ongoing reconciliation campaign between the Justin Trudeau government and Canadian indigenous persons as well as recent land settlements and negotiations in the Canadian North. He was critical, however, of the December 2016 decision by Ottawa to unilaterally declare a moratorium on Arctic oil and gas drilling, a decision opposed by the NWT and other northern territories as antithetical to regional economic development, and argued that this case proved that ‘colonialism is not entirely absent’ in the Canadian Arctic. The premier cautioned that there was still too much decision-making taking place outside of the region and sometimes outside Canada itself, regarding the Arctic.

Making a second appearance at the Arctic Circle was Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who reiterated her interest in bringing Scotland closer to the Arctic region, noting that the northernmost part of Scotland, (namely the Shetland Islands), was closer to the Arctic than it was to London. In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the more recent vote on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, (which Ms Sturgeon opposes), the Scottish government has been seeking closer alignment with the Nordic and Baltic regions, including governments within the Arctic.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland [Photo by M. Lanteigne]
Although the timetable for a possible second referendum on a potential Scottish split from the UK remains vague, it is likely that Scotland would continue to deepen ties with the Nordics in order to redefine itself as an sub-Arctic state should the next vote lead to separation. President Grímsson, while interviewing Ms Sturgeon, remarked that in Icelandic there was no equivalent to the title of ‘first minister’, only ‘prime minister’, (‘That’ll do!’ Ms Sturgeon replied in jest). Edinburgh will be hosting an Arctic Circle satellite conference in November, the first time Scotland will hold such an event.

[Photo by M.Lanteigne]
As with previous events, the Arctic Circle also featured a range of speakers and viewpoints from countries outside of the Arctic region, ranging from Arctic Council observer nations to other states well outside of the Arctic milieu. The most prominent examples of the latter included a discussion on clean energy initiatives by Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and a panel on fisheries protection including Prime Minister Henry Puna of the Cook Islands, and Mr Tetabo Nakara, Kiribati Minister of Fisheries, underscoring the connections between the Arctic and the Pacific Islands based on concerns that both regions are seen as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ in reference to the harmful effects of climate change.

The Arctic Council observer governments were also well represented this year, including panels and displays by Poland, a longstanding participant in the Council and in Arctic affairs. Representatives from the institution’s latest observer government, Switzerland, also hosted a panel on ongoing ice core and atmospheric research in the Arctic, including at the Zeppelin observatory station in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.

As with recent Arctic Circle conferences, China was highly visible, with this year’s announcement that the Arctic was now officially part of the Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) Initiative (BRI), spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping, dominating much of the country’s participation. Despite the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party taking place shortly after the Arctic Circle, several senior Chinese representatives spoke at the conference, including Lin Shanqing, Deputy Administrator of the country’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA).

Mr Lin stated [In Chinese] that China, as a near-Arctic state, sought new forms of information exchange and ‘win-win’ cooperation with both Arctic and non-Arctic actors, and he outlined Beijing’s emerging goals for the region. These include strengthening bilateral and multilateral Arctic cooperation, developing stronger Arctic scientific research, and improving regional capacity-building research, such as in the areas of climate change monitoring and data collection. This summer saw the completion of the eighth Arctic expedition completed by the icebreaker Xuelong (雪龙) or Snow Dragon, a voyage which included, for the first time, all three major shipping routes, (NSR, Northwest Passage and the Central Arctic Route).

Lin Shanqing, Deputy Administrator of China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) [Photo by M. Lanteigne]
Mr Lin, along with China’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr Gao Feng of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, elaborated on the linking of the ‘Ice Silk Road’ (bingshang silu 冰上丝路) to the other major links of the BRI, which may include greater cooperation on Arctic transportation and communication initiatives with Russia and the Nordic states. Although an Arctic link to the Belt and Road had long been predicted [pdf] before this year, official Ice Silk Road cooperation between China and Russia was confirmed at a July 2017 meeting in Moscow between President Xi and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. However, there was no sign at the conference of a draft governmental white paper on the Arctic, which has been in preparation for several months.

The Arctic Ambassador from Japan, Mr Keiji Ide, and from South Korea, Mr Kim Young-jun, also spoke at the event about their governments’ ongoing interest in the Arctic and the need for regional cooperation. The three Northeast Asian governments have held two summits which specifically address joint Arctic policies and concerns, with a third such meeting scheduled to take place in China next year. Despite ongoing political differences between Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo, the Arctic is one area in which the three governments are largely on the same page regarding policy. The Government of Japan also hosted a reception during the Arctic Circle, complete with musical entertainment and sushi and sake.

Opening reception [Photo by M. Lanteigne]
The United States’ presence on the federal level at the conference was largely muted this year, but two states were very much in view, namely Alaska and Maine. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a frequent participant in the Arctic Circle, spoke about her state’s Arctic innovations and infrastructure, including in the area of energy micro-grids, and also praised Washington’s recent moves to address the dearth of icebreakers in the US, suggesting that icebreakers were a needed American asset as opposed to merely an Alaskan requirement. She also advocated that the Arctic remain a priority for the Trump administration, and noted that a senior regional official for the United States still had yet to be named. The state of Maine’s representation at the event included a speech by Governor Paul LePage (R). Maine has been seeking to be viewed as the ‘second Arctic state’, and Mr LePage spoke about the state’s role in Arctic transportation enterprises, including sea shipping.

The breakout panels at the event represented a wide range of interests and disciplines, and included business development, fishing, gender politics, green energy, indigenous affairs, military issues, sustainable development, tourism, and university cooperation. Although there were no major policy documents launched during this year’s event, the 2017 Arctic Yearbook, Change and Innovation, did make its debut at the conference, with a focus this year on regional knowledge-sharing, education and legal concerns.

Docked close to the Harpa conference facilities in Reykjavík’s harbour was the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica, which had the distinction of setting a new record in June of this year for earliest transit of Canada’s Northwest Passage during a voyage between Vancouver and Nuuk. Tours of the vessel, (and extra meeting rooms), were offered during the conference as well as discussions of the ship’s engineering. The arrival of the icebreaker further illustrated Finland’s roles as chair of the Arctic Council, a position it will retain until the baton is passed to Iceland in 2019.

Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica [Photo by M.Lanteigne]
During its half-decade in existence, the Arctic Circle sought to not only allow for greater cooperation in regional affairs between government and non-governmental actors, but also to better introduce Arctic issues to the rest of the world. The event has also served to solidify Iceland as a central actor in Arctic affairs and a nexus for dialogue about where the circumpolar north is heading politically, economically and socially in the age of climate change.

[The author would like to thank Mingming Shi for her assistance with the researching for this post.]