Last week, China said it plans to build a “#Polar_Silk_Road” that will open shipping lanes across the largely pristine region at the top of the world. It’s an ambitious idea for a country that lacks an Arctic border, and it has raised concerns around the world about China’s ultimate intentions and its capacity for environmental stewardship. Although these are reasonable worries, they’re almost certainly overblown.
In theory, melting Arctic ice will create a significant economic opportunity. By one account, the region holds 22 percent of the world’s oil and gas reserves. As the ice recedes due to climate change, those reserves will be easier to mine. As new shipping lanes open, they should also be easier to transport. A cargo vessel going from Shanghai to Rotterdam via the Northwest Passage, rather than through the Panama Canal, will shave 2,200 miles off its journey. Already, some 900 Arctic infrastructure projects are at various stages of development.
To be sure, most won’t get anywhere. It’s hard to predict exactly how and where polar ice will melt. Some hoped-for shipping lanes may not open until the 2070s, and those routes that have already opened are unlikely to support profitable shipping businesses, thanks to their remoteness and the high cost of insurance. In 2016, only 19 vessels traversed the Northern Sea Route between Asia and Europe — hardly evidence of an Arctic “gold rush” or competition for the Panama Canal.
With that in mind, clearer rules and stronger institutions are still needed. For starters, the U.S. should set an example by finally ratifying the #United_Nations_Convention_on_the_Law_of_the_Sea, the treaty governing the oceans. In doing so, it would gain more influence in discussions over the Arctic, and help ensure that disputes in the region’s international waters can be resolved in an orderly way. Additionally, the #Polar_Code, which regulates cargo vessels and cruise ships in the area, should be extended to fishing boats, which arguably pose the greatest risk to Arctic ecosystems. Finally, it would make sense to establish an international scientific body — perhaps modeled on the North Pacific Marine Sciences Organization — that could provide timely information on the Arctic’s environment and fish stocks.