After Rovaniemi: What Next for the Arctic Council?

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The Arctic Council Ministerial venue in Rovaniemi, Finland [Photo by Jouni Porsanger / Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland]
Last week’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, which marked the end of Finland’s tenure as chair of the organisation, will likely be remembered for the words and actions by the US delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the aftermath of his controversial speech, and his refusal to support language mentioning climate change in the meeting’s documentation, resulting in the Ministerial concluding without a formal declaration for the first time in its history, there is now the question of whether the United States would be pursuing a policy of isolationism within the Council.

As part of his northern European tour, Mr Pompeo was also expected to travel to Nuuk in order to announce new American diplomatic initiatives there, but an eleventh hour announcement indicated the trip was postponed indefinitely, and the secretary instead returned to Washington. It was however announced by Washington that the State Department did intend to re-establish a ‘presence’ in Greenland. The US had opened a consulate in Nuuk (then Godthåb) in May 1940 when Denmark fell under Nazi German occupation. However, the consulate was shuttered in 1953, after Greenland’s status as a Danish colony was removed with the island becoming a constituency within the Kingdom of Denmark along with the Faroe Islands. Greenland opened a representative office in Washington in September 2014 as part of the island’s widening foreign policy interests.

With the closing of the Ministerial, the chair of the Arctic Council has passed to Iceland, which will oversee the organisation under the leadership of Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson, until 2021. At the conclusion of the Rovaniemi meetings, the government of Iceland released its first policy paper outlining its upcoming work with the Council, as well as the main theme of Iceland’s tenure as Council chair, namely regional sustainable development. This concept would be joined by four regional priorities, namely understanding and protecting the marine environment, including in the wake of dangers from plastic pollution, addressing regional climate change and seeking ‘green solutions’, promoting the wellbeing of the four million citizens living in the Arctic, and strengthening cooperation within the Arctic Council.

Related to this plan, Iceland confirmed its support for the closer alignment of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council (AEC) to promote ‘responsible economic development’. On 6 May, the AEC, created five years ago to facilitate business links with the Arctic, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Arctic Council to further that cooperation.

In his speech at the Ministerial, Mr Þórðarson pointed to the need to continue to develop the Arctic while acknowledging the serious challenges posed by climate change and ice erosion, also noting that while the 2015 Paris climate agreement was a positive step, the deal would not be enough to curtail global warming for many future decades. He also added that the Arctic Council mandate did not include military security, and instead focused on creating a forum for ‘dialogue and peaceful cooperation’ in the region.

This year saw no new non-Arctic governments added to the list of Council observers, after Switzerland was the lone candidate added in 2017, but one intergovernmental organisation, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), was granted observer status this year. The IMO was created in 1948 as a specialised agency of the United Nations, and is responsible for the regulation of maritime safety and legal affairs. The IMO is also responsible for the development of the Polar Code, regulating safe and responsible civilian maritime traffic in the waters of the Arctic and off Antarctica, which came into effect in January 2017.

Meanwhile, the political fallout from the Pompeo speech has led other Arctic actors to treat the situation as metaphorical road damage to be bypassed. Other members of the Council confirmed that they would be pressing on with climate change policies in the Arctic, and Iceland’s opening policy statements further confirm that position. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), one of the permanent participants in the Arctic Council, strongly criticised the United States for blocking the release of a formal declaration from the ministerial which included the challenges of climate change, accusing the US of a lack of leadership in the region and of ‘moral failure’. However, the US State Department attempted to put a more positive spin on the meeting, with one representative praising a ‘very, very, positive outcome’ at the event despite, to phrase it mildly, contrasting views from the other Arctic Council principals.

As well, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected Mr Pompeo’s assertion that Canadian claims to the Northwest Passage as internal waters were ‘illegitimate’, stating that ‘Canada is very clear about the Northwest Passage being Canadian,’ based on both history and geography. However, the matter appears to be far from resolved, given plans in Washington for the US Navy to conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Northwest Passage, although it was unclear what vessel could be used for that operation given the few ice-capable vessels the United States currently owns. Should that take place, it would be seen as a direct challenge to Canadian sovereignty and an assertion of a US right of passage.

As an Arctic policy specialist recently argued, for the US to rush into a FONOP in the polar regions would be ‘unwise’, given the still difficult-to-predict ice and weather patterns in the region, coupled with the poor condition of the United States’ few functioning icebreakers, as well as the risk of further irritating US-Canada relations. Ties between Ottawa and Washington have already cooled considerably since US President Donald Trump came to power, including over economic issues such as the recent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the sometimes-brittle relationship between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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Icelandic Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson at the Arctic Council Ministerial [Photo by Jouni Porsanger / Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland]
China, which was singled out in Mr Pompeo’s remarks for challenging the Arctic regional order and seeking to develop a greater role in regional decision-making, was dismissive of US criticism, with a representative of the Chinese foreign ministry pointing to Beijing’s ongoing support of the Paris agreement, (to which the US is no longer adhering), and interest in cooperating with Arctic actors to further research climate change and its effects. US views that China should have a limited presence in the region were further challenged this week with the opening of the Arctic Circle Forum in Shanghai, the first such event to be held in China, and a showcase for the country’s expanding Arctic agenda. Among the topics of the forum were educational cooperation, environmental studies, indigenous communities, tourism and the development of an ‘Ice Silk Road’ (Bingshang Sichouzhilu 冰上丝绸之路).

The Shanghai gathering also provided a useful venue for Arctic governments to confirm their interest in better engaging China in the Arctic and in expressing disagreement with the US policies expressed at the ministerial. Andrew Leslie, a member of the Canadian parliament representing the governing Liberal Party, stated in remarks during the forum that despite a cooling of Sino-Canadian relations since December of last year due to the Meng Wanzhou affair, Ottawa was hopeful the Arctic could open up new paths to bilateral cooperation.

During the meetings, Mr Wang Hong of the Ministry of Natural Resources – State Oceanic Administration section, called for joint scientific expeditions to the North Pole as well as combined efforts to further strengthen [In Chinese] the Ice Silk Road as a ‘blue partnership’ (lanse huoban guanxi 蓝色伙伴关系) with other Arctic states for the benefit of the region as a whole. As well, a director with China Shipping and Sinopec Suppliers Co., Mr Cai Meijian, recommended the creation of an ‘Arctic Integrated Governance Law’ which would further augment Arctic Ocean safety and security. These statements add further weight to the idea of China becoming more comfortable with the project of building adjacent, or potentially even alternative regimes in the Arctic, a point which was alluded to back in 2015 when then-Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Ming recommended the creation of a ‘multi-tiered Arctic cooperation framework for win-win results’ in the region.

This past week has been a heady one for Arctic affairs, but one initial conclusion which can be drawn is that there have been significant shifts appearing in the region, both in terms of policy priorities and distribution of power. Despite apparent American attempts to move these processes backward, Arctic politics are changing, whether Washington is ready or not.