East- West Arctic Cooperation During Times of Global Tension

The Stimson Center held an event to assess how the U.S. and its allies can cooperate with Russia, China, and other Asian nations in the Arctic during times of tense relations.


Keynote address

Vice Admiral Charles Michel, Vice Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, gave a keynote address on the newly established Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF).  He began by stating that the U.S. Coast Guard aims to be as transparent as possible with the ACGF, and intends to continue to do so going forward.  He discussed the actual context of the ACGF and said creating the ACGF was a natural evolution of Arctic governance, as well as Coast Guard governance on a global basis.

Before going into detail about the context of the ACGF, he gave some of the history of how it was formed in the post-Cold War era, when the Arctic Council (AC) was first established.  Coinciding with this, there was an initiative among the Coast Guards of serval nations to work together.  The first forum, the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, was organized in 2000 by Japan.  Japan was looking for a non-binding, operationally-focused forum to help facilitate ship rider operations. Subsequently, the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum was formed by 20 nations.

In 2011, when the AC championed the Search & Rescue (SAR) Agreement, it was unclear how it would be put into action because the AC does not have the operational forces or jurisdiction to administer it.  In 2013, the AC also championed the Marine Oil Pollution and Response Agreement, but encountered the same challenge of how to make it operational.

Springing from this came the creation of the ACGF.  It was modeled after the two other Coast Guard forums previously implemented. It is not an AC body, but it is designed to complement the AC, even logistically – the country heading the organization rotates and mirrors that of the AC.

VAdm Michel said there is both a military and civilian presence within the AC, which is a strength.  It can bring in the defense establishment along with the security folks and other civilian agencies that work on this portfolio.

He emphasized one aspect of the ACGF – academic researching and teaching – which is conducted mainly at the Center for Arctic Policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

He then went into some of the current activities and long term goals of the ACGF.  Their current activities are:

  • 2016 Spring Leaders Forum;
  • 2016 Fall Leaders Forum; and
  • Support information sharing mechanisms.

Their long term goals are:

  • Increase involvement in multi-national Arctic missions;
  • Conduct combined operations; and
  • Prepare for turning over chairmanship of the council to Finland in 2017.

Lastly, he discussed year-round ensured access to Polar Regions.  This is a basic governance structure, and the bottom line is if you cannot access these areas, you cannot provide governance.


Audience members were then given a chance to ask VAdm. Michel questions

Q: With the accelerated time line the Obama Administration has put in place for building an icebreaker, is the Coast Guard looking at getting increased funding?

A: VAdm. Michel stated that he could not give any information about the FY2017 budget, and the Coast Guard is trying its best to meet the President’s intent, but the estimates on a vessel like that are about $1 billion.

Q: There was a Chinese vessel that was sailing through American waters off the shore of Alaska, how did the Coast Guard react to that?

A: Unplanned encounters at sea are not wanted by any mariner.  This topic is in active discussion in the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum.  They are looking at modifying the combined operations manual, not only between the U.S. and China, but the multilateral nature of it would also modify it with all of the other participating bodies.  Regarding the Chinese vessel, they were just in passage, and were complying with international law.

Q: What has happened when there has been an issue of tension between Russia and the U.S.?

A: The Coast Guards work together regardless of tension elsewhere on the globe.  This goes all the way back to the Cold War.  There is never enough vessels in the Arctic for each nation to take care of the business there.  The relationship between the U.S. Coast Guard and their Russian counterparts is a model for international cooperation because both of us together are much more together productive than we would be working on our own.  He emphasized that these are operationally-focused bodies, so even folks that have different political agendas have common problem sets that still need to be addressed.

Q: Is there any other news about the Coast Guard’s budget in general?

A: The FY2016 budget was quite good for the Coast Guard.  Congress decided to buy us another National Security Vessel, which is the most sophisticated vessel the Coast Guard has had in its portfolio in its entire history.

Q: Are there technological designs that are needed for a new heavy icebreaker, or is it just a question of funding?

A: Absolutely. Polar Sea and Star need to use very high horsepower in certain times.  When they were built, they were built with gas and diesel-powered turbines.  When you put gas turbines on a vessel like this, you need to use controllable pitch propellers, where the blades are rotated around their long axis to change the blade pitch.  But, you are crushing through ice, so one can imagine the difficulties that come about when you have to use controllable pitch propellers in ice.  Diesel electric technology has evolved enough today to generate the high horsepower needed to go through ice with diesel electric so you can use fixed pitch propellers.  There is a lot of technology that exists today that is much more advanced than what is included in the 40 year old icebreaker.


Panel Discussion on the development of a Binding Agreement on Science Cooperation in the Arctic


  • Jonathan White, USN (Ret) – President and CEO, Consortium for Ocean Leadership
  • Evan Bloom, Director, Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, US Department of State and Vice Chair of the Arctic Council’s Science Cooperation Task Force
  • Kelly Falkner, Director of the Division of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation and Head of the US Delegation to the Science Cooperation Task Force
  • David Michel, Non-Resident Fellow, Environmental Security Program, Stimson Center
  • Caitlyn Antrim (Moderator), Executive Director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans


RAdm. White discussed how science will enable the right type of cooperation in the Arctic, along with activities form the Coast Guard and the military.  He stated we need to ensure that we apply science to the decisions made in the Arctic.  Science-based decisions are needed and enable understanding of the environment.  Through science we can get security.

There are many types of security in the Arctic – environmental security and national security are just two. Science and technology solutions can give a “home field advantage at the away games.”  They can help understand how the Arctic is changing and how it is going to change in the future so we know what type of equipment is needed to be deployed out of ships or planes.

We need Arctic ships, but there are also other types of ‘ships’ that we need, including:

  • Leadership – through the ACGF, and the AC;
  • Ownership – accepting responsibility that we are an Arctic nation;
  • Partnerships – between nations; and
  • Ownership, stewardship, scholarship, sponsorship, and more.

Science has the ability to do that.  There are institutions internationally that are working on research in the Arctic.  Through science, this is how we get international cooperation and collaboration in the Arctic – “science leads to security which leads to success.”

Evan Bloom gave a presentation with a foreign policy perspective. He stated that the AC should turn their focus to a legally-binding instrument.  After two or three meetings, it is anticipated that there will be a third legally-binding negotiating contract under the AC.  There have been 7 meetings so far under the U.S. chairmanship.  The next meeting will be posted in March.  Aside from NSF, there are a number of delegations and interagency discussions about the underlying policies.

It has been agreed that scientific priorities are not within the context of the agreement, but they are going to focus instead on removing obstacles to Arctic science.  The benefits that can come from this type of an agreement are removing obstacles and improving access to areas where research can take place.  It can also increase interagency coordination within the Arctic States.  When you try to conduct science in a particular country, you deal with a lot of different governments, federal, and state agencies.  A legally-binding agreement can bring this all together so this process is more coordinated.

This negotiation is currently in the diplomatic process.  Some of the key issues that may be reflected in the negotiations are related to moving people and scientific equipment.  Another aspect that is being assessed is how we can improve data sharing.  Access to research infrastructure and facilities, access to research areas within the geographic Arctic, issues related to advancing science education, issues related to intellectual property rights, and how to describe to geographic scope of the Arctic for the purposes of the agreement are other elements up for discussion.

Bloom stated that the agreement would only cover what goes on in the Arctic.  If there is work going on regarding the Arctic but it is at a university in Colorado, it would not be covered. This is one issue they have been trying to accommodate.

The agreement at this point will only be among the eight Arctic States, but we are looking at how to provide benefits to non-Arctic States.  We want to be sure not to undermine any of the processes that bring in the non-Arctic States, because they have a big role in conducting Arctic research.

The idea is for this to be one of the major deliverables – signed by the foreign ministers in the spring of 2017 – when the U.S. will host their ministerial meeting passing on chairmanship of the council to Finland.

Kelly Falkner expanded on Bloom’s remarks from a science policy perspective – getting a little more into the “why” and “what” of the agreement.

First, Falkner reiterated some of the comments VAdm. Michel made about the need for icebreakers.  Science has shown very clearly that storm activity is on an increasing trend in the Arctic.  Based on all we know about the climate system, we would expect it to get worse with time.  When you have loose, unconsolidated ice and there is a storm brewing, that ice will find a ship.  That is when you are going to need very capable vessels to handle things.

On the topic of the legally-binding science agreement, Falkner stated that this type of agreement is urgently needed because the pace of change in the Arctic right now goes beyond the resources of any nation, so the need for cooperation is paramount.  Additionally, the challenge of science under harsh Arctic conditions requires fortitude and patience from its practitioners.

She elaborated on this, directing listeners to imagine that they are out in the field, and trying to do something that would require taking a glove off for a minute – in the Arctic, one minute can be long enough to get frostbite.  These are the types of realties that people who work in the Arctic face regularly.  Another challenge is that at such cold temperatures, equipment does not work.  Lastly, in Arctic environments, you do not have the ability to rely on an established infrastructure network.

Overall, the cost for observations in the Arctic are high in general.  On top of that, there is uncertain political influence.  From a science policy standpoint, Falkner stated that we really need to work hard to attract, retain, and support the talent and the dedication required for people who push the frontiers in knowledge in Arctic science.

She also commented on Russia, and how we need to work together with them.  The environment tends to foster cold-induced diplomacy as a matter of survival.  There is a certain kind of comradery around survival in the Arctic, which is a hallmark of the U.S. and Russia working together in the Arctic.  “There is competition of course, but that survival imperative strips the politics away.”

Falkner then described what is being done within the AC.  The first meeting established the national research priorities that countries have, which overlap considerably.  One of the reasons they do is because there is a robust set of non-political bodies already assigned to the task of identifying research priorities and forming research programs to address them.  This includes: the International Arctic Science Committee; bodies of meteorological organizations; the University of the Arctic entity that looks over all the academic institutions that are interested in the Arctic; and traditional local knowledge groups.

Falkner said that the AC came to the conclusion that we should not be focusing on replicating the activities of these entities, but instead on supporting and fortifying those activities.  As Bloom mentioned, we would help with what governments can do to facilitate, and make the research that is being done more efficient.

She then addressed why we would have a multilateral binding agreement with those that have sovereign territory in the Arctic – they have special responsibilities to tackle the bureaucratic inefficiencies in the Arctic.  But, we need to ensure that the benefits of this agreement can extend to beyond those that do not have sovereign territory in the Arctic.

In addition to what Bloom discussed, we want to draw focus on taking the next steps that are needed related to data sharing.  When you share data, you enhance its value.  You never know where the next advance is going to come from.

David Michel discussed another connection that he sees emerging between the activities of the AC and the “third pole,” or the Tibetan Plateau.  The Tibetan Plateau is very important source of water supply and environmental stability in Asia.

The AC can serve as an institutional example to another area of the world that is in need of partnership, stewardship, and many of the other “ships” RAdm White discussed in his presentation for countries that do not always see eye to eye in other areas of their diplomacy.

The AC itself is a body based on “soft law,” but there has been a slow evolution through soft law, to non-binding agreements that has gradually led to these three binding agreements.

A soft-law intergovernmental institution could be useful for bringing together the countries of the Himalayan region that depend on the natural resources from the Tibetan Plateau.  Through an avenue that uses knowledge, capacity building, and sustainability, the countries could work together to manage this resource they all depend on even if they do not agree in other political areas.

Many challenges in the science policy realm that have been discussed today are similar to those surrounding the changes in the Himalayan region.  This is especially true in the area of data sharing.  There are extreme instances with some of these countries where information is even kept secret from the scientists in their own country.

Other challenges in both this region an in the Arctic are physical access, taking on joint research projects, facilities for research to take place, combining resources, and combining intellectual resources.

There is also a potential leadership element, or model template, that other countries around the world facing similar challenges to those in the Arctic might look to as a resource to solve their own environmental problems.


The audience members were then given an opportunity to ask the panelists questions

Q: Shell did not have enough knowledge on how to exploit resources in 2012. Do you think there have been changes in the knowledge that they had then versus now?

A: RAdm White responded that he thinks they had enough knowledge, but did not make the right decision based off of the knowledge that they had.  Or, he stated that maybe the decision makers did not have enough information about how bad the weather is, how rapidly conditions can change, or how unreliable weather predictions and forecasting can be.  So, things have changed from 2012.  There was a lesson learned to all the oil and gas companies going up to the Arctic about how dangerous it really is to operate in that environment.

Q: What are some of the biggest hurdles to getting this binding scientific agreement?

A: We are quite far along in terms of the negotiations.  Others have mentioned the importance of Russia in terms of cooperating in the Arctic in general, and Russia is in fact co-chairing the task force for this agreement.  Rather than “hurdles,” there are a lot of details that need to be negotiated, but at this point we are on track for delivering an agreement for the ministers in 2017.  This is a consensus-based effort, so it is inherently slower in principle, but not everybody gets everything they necessarily want, so we have worked through a lot of issues we think could come up of ahead of time.  The other thing is as it moves forward is that many other people have felt that they have a stake in it, which adds to the challenges of making sure that non-Arctic nations benefit from this agreement.  The challenges that have been thought of ahead of time and addressed now will hopefully enable the final steps to proceed simply and more robust than the process has been so far.