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Law of the Sea Treaty in Focus at Arctic Seminar

Law of the Sea Treaty in Focus at Arctic Seminar

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On Thursday June 26th, the Royal Norwegian Embassy hosted a breakfast seminar titled “Security Challenges in a Changing Arctic”, during which key issues regarding American security in the High North were discussed. Senator Angus King, who delivered the keynote speech before a packed room at the Army and Navy Club, illustrated the United States’ lack of military preparedness in the region: American armed forces only utilize one polar-class icebreaker, which has been in service since 1976. Furthermore, the US, despite already adhering in practice, is one of the few countries in the world yet to ratify the Law of the Sea convention, a treaty which would benefit the US economically and diplomatically. Research by the American Security Project reveals the numerous advantages of the treaty both for domestic business interests and foreign policy.

The USGS estimates that over 20% of undiscovered petroleum reserves rest in the Arctic basin, which is now seasonally accessible due to ice melt resulting from climate change. While the speakers acknowledged the irony of burning fossil fuels that are only available due to glacial melt from previous carbon emissions, Senator King advocating using the reserves in the short and mid term as America gradually shifts towards renewable sources. As various Arctic countries compete for exploitable territory, it is vital to have a legal framework with which to settle territorial disputes, a point acknowledged by virtually all speakers. The Law of the Sea Treaty establishes rules to determine aquatic rights and, if ratified, would allow the United States to lay claim to a vast, mineral-rich continental shelf that extends 600 miles off the coast of Alaska, in addition to the customary 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

The Senator’s speech was echoed in the proceeding panel by Ambassador David Balton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Fisheries at the State Department, who added that America is the only Arctic nation not presently a party to the treaty and called for the Senate to take the matter up. Also present at the event was Rear Admiral Jonathan White, Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy. He argued that as Arctic ice recedes at an ever quickening pace, the US must increase its presence in the region, although in a non-militarized way. Given the dangers of the harsh marine environment, it is important to have an emergency infrastructure in place.

The American Security Project, in a paper titled “Critical Security Challenges in the Arctic”, articulated 5 key challenges of the changing Arctic landscape: Energy Exploration, Territorial Disputes, Infrastructure for Emergency Response, American Military Presence, and Managing the U.S. Presence on the Arctic Council. The speakers highlighted all of these issues in their discussion of the High North. With momentum building from the State Department’s Our Oceans conference, there is increased international will to resolve the myriad aquatic challenges facing the United States and the world. Signing the Law of the Sea Treaty, which has the full support of the Navy and business leaders such as Lockheed Martin, would be an important step as America confronts the challenge of a changing environment in the Arctic and beyond.

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