Iceland’s president sees no U.S. leadership as commercial potential opens in Arctic

China and other Asian nations have been moving aggressively to exploit the commercial potential of the Arctic as more of the region becomes accessible for development and shipping in the increasingly ice-free summer, while the U.S. appears to be dragging its feet, Icelandic President Olafur R. Grimsson told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Chinese companies are building tankers that can carry Chinese goods to Europe and U.S. East Coast ports through the Arctic Ocean over Canada, potentially cutting China’s transport costs by 40 percent and providing an advantage in trade, he said.

South Korean officials are in discussions to start mineral development projects in Greenland, while the tropical city-state of Singapore is searching for locations to build an Arctic shipping port, all with an eye toward moving in quickly to take advantage of the rapid warming that has led to record low levels of Arctic sea ice in recent summers and made increased commercialization possible.

“It will fundamentally transform the global trading system, and China is clearly preparing for the time when they will be the leading trading country in the world,” he said.

By contrast, the U.S. has seemed distracted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and other conflicts around the world, and has been slow to respond to the fast-moving changes up north, he said.

The U.S. seems unaware even of the dramatic changes within its own borders, as the disappearance of sea ice has opened up large swaths of the Alaska coast to unexpected visitors from abroad, he said, recounting how a cruise ship carrying German tourists landed unannounced last summer at a coastal town in Alaska.

The German passengers disembarked and went shopping, apparently unbeknownst to U.S. customs and border security agents who were 1,000 miles away, he said.

“Anybody with a boat can arrive. The melting of the ice in Alaska has created an enormous open-border question,” he said. “The so-called political establishment in Washington has been otherwise engaged” though the Arctic is “America’s backyard, its homeland.”

Governing the Arctic

While Russia and other nations in the eight-member Arctic Council for years have sent their top foreign ministers to council meetings to debate governance of the Arctic, the only high-level delegation from the U.S., led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was two years ago. Current Secretary John F. Kerry has not decided whether to attend this year’s meeting, he said.

Though the U.S. has large unexploited Arctic reserves of oil, gas and other minerals, environmentalists have prevented most development. The U.S. has vacillated between allowing some tentative, first-time drilling in offshore Arctic waters recently to maintaining an all-out prohibition against development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Resource-hungry Asian governments, by contrast, are finding fertile ground for development in Greenland and Iceland.

“I think it’s important that America maintains a high level of engagement” to act as a counterbalance in the region, Mr. Grimsson said. “The guiding spirit of the Arctic Council is we don’t want this to be a race for resources. On the contrary, the model of the Wild West has been refuted” by the nations bordering the Arctic.

Though it hasn’t gained much attention, Mr. Grimsson said, the council has become a model of cooperation among competing nations, with even Russia surprising the others with its willingness to work together to address potential problems. The group negotiated a treaty for dealing with search-and-rescue emergencies, and others are on the way.

Despite concerns about what the increasing commercialization of the Arctic will bring to the pristine environment and age-old native cultures in the region, Mr. Grimsson said, he welcomes the overtures of China and other Asian nations that want to exploit the region, and supports including nations as far afield as France, Germany, China and India as official observers at council meetings.

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