Frozen out of the Arctic

World powers have begun to navigate the future of Arctic shipping.

As Maersk was signing off in late July on final voyage plans for a historic transit of the North Sea Route – the first attempt by a large container ship to use the Arctic shortcut – lawmakers in Washington, DC, were getting ready to delete the US Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) heavy icebreaker programme from the 2019 federal budget.

The two events illustrate the opposite direction the United States is heading with respect to other world powers in navigating the future of Arctic shipping. While vessel operators such as Maersk look to China and Russia for investment in Arctic infrastructure to help them save millions of dollars in transportation costs, the United States can’t generate the political will needed to fund the basic assets required for a commercially viable Arctic strategy.

Rubbing salt into the wounds of those in Congress who decry the icebreaker budget cut are Republicans who, controlling the purse strings, want to use the money to help pay for a USD4.6 billion wall along the US-Mexico border instead.

“I’m perplexed that in a time of extraordinary need for the [USCG] to protect our nation from the melting of the Arctic Ocean ice, [as well as] China and Russia claiming not only access but the rights to land beneath the Arctic Ocean, the House Appropriations Committee will cut the [USCG budget] by over a billion dollars so that a ‘big, beautiful’ border wall can be built that [President Donald Trump] so much wants,” lamented John Garamendi, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s maritime subcommittee, during a hearing in July.

Garamendi and Duncan Hunter, his Republican counterpart, have been working for years on bipartisan measures to help jump-start the US Arctic presence as opportunities for offshore energy and faster vessel routings have emerged. Both are alarmed at the distance the competition on the other side of the globe has put between themselves and the United States for dominance within the Arctic Circle.

Their concern is well-founded. Eight years ago, the USCG identified a need for three heavy and three medium icebreakers, but to date it still has only one active medium and one active heavy icebreaker. The heavy icebreaker, Polar Star, is expected to reach the end of its service life as early as 2020.

Russia, by comparison, has 41 icebreakers that are “far superior in capability and technology” to Polar Star, according to a 3 August report issued by the Congressional Research Service, which provides policy guidance to Congress.

And China – which doesn’t even have an Arctic border – operates three icebreakers, with one under construction. Beijing is looking to strengthen its presence in the Arctic as part of its ‘Polar Silk Road’ initiative, because “whoever has control over the Arctic route will control the new passage of world economics and international strategies”, wrote Dalian Maritime University’s Li Zhenfu in 2010.

Ironically, the biggest impediment to breaking the stalemate in the debate over how to get sufficient funding to the region may be the USCG itself.

At the same hearing in which Garamendi scolded colleagues for zeroing out icebreaker funding, a spokesperson for the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog group, criticised the USCG for continuing to “rely on the annual budget process and its five-year capital investment plan for long-term acquisition planning, processes which we found have contributed to capability gaps and funding shortfalls”.

In other words, the USCG has to figure out how to provide a much better long-term business case to its congressional overseers for expanding its Arctic assets or risk playing catch-up indefinitely as commercial shipping looks elsewhere for support in expanding its markets.