First a correction: In last month’s story on happenings in the arctic, (A Busy March for arctic Affairs Watchers, Pacific Maritime Magazine, April 2016) we noted efforts to establish marine protected areas goals for arctic land and marine areas by 2020. The marine areas to be protected should have read 10 percent, rather than 20 percent.
The arctic Council is made up of the eight arctic States of Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. We find it entirely appropriate that these nations sit at the same table and work out a strategic framework upon which all can agree.
Meanwhile, Chinese vessels will be encouraged to travel via the Northwest Passage to cut travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Chinese government has published a guidebook with more than 350 pages of charts and detailed information on sea ice and weather.
The China Daily quotes a spokesman for China’s Maritime Safety Administration saying, “Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transportation and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation.”
Wu Yuxiao, senior official at the maritime administration who helped write the guide, said the route would lower transportation costs and be strategically important to China.
“Many countries have noticed the financial and strategic value of arctic Ocean passages,” he said. “China has also paid much attention.”
When discussing the world’s oceans, those nations that rely on them for trade should have a stake in how they are managed. But many in the international community believe that even those without a vested interest should have a crack at regulating the navigation and resource extraction of the world’s oceans. For example, the United Nations last month announced a far-reaching proposal that could give UN-sponsored authorities control over the biological resources of all the waters that lie outside national territories and economic zones.
The UN resolution could see as much as 30 percent of the world’s oceans set aside as marine protected areas and closed to fishing and or navigation. The US is not currently a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so would not be bound to the resolution, although policy makers in the US continue to be pressured to ratify the treaty.
China’s interest in the arctic comes amid tensions the country has created in the South China Sea, or as the Philippines have started calling it, the West Philippine Sea, as China continues to turn formerly uninhabited Spratly Islands in the area into what appear to be military bases and port complexes through infrastructure improvements and dredging.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all lay claim to some of the islands, and the Philippines especially claim part of the chain as their territory under UNCLOS, ratified by both China and the Philippines. A decision is pending in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines concerning the legality of China’s claim over the area under the treaty, but China rejects the court’s authority in the case, which experts believe will go in favor of the Philippines, potentially further raising tensions in the area, and calling into question the value of the treaty.
Meanwhile, unfettered by the inconvenience of international law and bureaucracy, China is proactively strengthening its position in the Spratly Islands while the parties in the West Philippine Sea take their concerns to the United Nations. At the same time, the country is preparing its fleets to exploit the commercial value of the Northwest Passage while the arctic Council discusses logistics and political divisions.