Arctic chiefs of defense agree to closer search and rescue cooperation

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, second from right, stands on an iceberg as he talks with Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk (centre) as they take part in a training exercise during Operation Nanook in Resolute, Nunavut on the third day of his five-day northern tour to Canada's Arctic on Wednesday Aug. 25, 2010. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickOn Thursday and Friday, the chiefs of defense from all eight Arctic states met at a Canadian military base in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador to discuss forging closer ties up north. This was the first time that generals from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S. convened. The meeting will now become a yearly event in order to improve cooperation in the remote and inaccessible Arctic. Representatives also had opportunities to meet with Canadian Rangers and local community leaders.

Nunatsiaq News quoted Canadian General Walter Natynczyk as saying, “I am very pleased with the discussions amongst the eight chiefs of defence just completed in Goose Bay. This is the first time the northern chiefs of defence have had the opportunity to meet, as a forum, to discuss issues unique to our respective regions. We were able to gain an understanding of the unique challenges each faces with regards to emergency response and for support to our civilian authorities.”

The chiefs of defense agreed to cooperate more closely on search and rescue operations, which builds upon the signing of the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement by the members of the Arctic Council last May. A further understanding between generals to forge closer ties in the Arctic also comes at a good time, at it was just announced at a security and cooperation conference in Murmansk that traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) increased 20% in 2011 over the previous year. Participants from all eight Arctic countries attended this conference as well.

In Murmansk, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev’s remarks were similar to themes of Goose Bay conference. He stated, “We see the changes occurring in the Arctic and the need to understand and see the threats and challenges that come with it. We see that the Arctic is becoming more open to navigation. It is the more cost-effective way, so it will be used. After our last meeting, the amount of traffic along the NSR increased by 20%. We need to ensure security in the Arctic – we need infrastructure and Coast Guard cooperation.” Currently, ships are escorted through the NSR by Russian nuclear submarines, of which there are six active ones. Discussions at the conference focused on the future of Russia’s fleet and on making amendments to their maritime code. Currently, while Russia views the NSR as internal waters, the State Duma is considering a bill (“On Amendments to Some Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation Concerning the State Regulation of Commercial Navigation Along the Routes Lying in the Water Areas of the Northern Sea Route”) to allow a higher volume of foreign ships to sail through the passage. Currently, most shipping is still internal, bringing resources like oil, minerals, and timber to Russia’s northern oblasts.

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Cari Thomas attended the conference in Murmansk and spoke about her country’s role in improving shipping safety in the Arctic. She stated that the U.S. “has been involved in helping to advance ship safety standards and will continue to do that in a number of areas.” Thomas added, “We’re working very closely with the IMO on a foreign code, construction standards, on watchstanding, […] and on ice navigation. She also brought up the incident of the sinking of a Carnival cruise ship off the coast of Italy a few months ago, noting “how catastrophic that would be” if it took place in the Arctic. Even worse possibly is the threat of an oil spill along the already-polluted Kola Peninsula, as neither Murmansk nor nearby Severomorsk have the capability to respond to such a disaster.

The fact that the generals of all eight states met together further demonstrates that cooperation, rather than conflict, is the name of the game in the Arctic. No single country – not even Russia, with its sizable but aging nuclear fleet – has enough capabilities or infrastructure to respond to disasters in the Arctic by itself. The costs of getting almost anything done in the circumpolar region are so high that countries need to cooperate, whether on oil and gas exploration, mapping the sea floor, or search and rescue operations.

News Links

Arctic generals agree on closer ties,” Toronto Star

Russia taking on Northern sea route as Bellona raises alarm over Norwegian vessels under escort of nuclear icebreakers,” Bellona

The Arctic is open to all,” Voice of Russia

Removing stumbling blocks from the Northern Sea Route: Russia plans to pass a new law to develop shipping in the Arctic,” Oil and Gas Eurasia

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Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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