"We are men of action. We get things done." With those words, Ahmed Ali Al-Subaey, the Saudi-born CEO of South Korea's largest oil company, set the tone for a conference on Arctic shipping held, significantly, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Most of the world's cargo ships traverse the Pacific as they service the economic powerhouses of Asia. Fully 77 per cent of China's oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. In Beijing, this strategic weakness is referred to as the "Malacca dilemma."
Some of the larger vessels can't fit into the Panama Canal and must loop around the bottom of South America. Still more loop around Africa to avoid the pirate-infested approaches to the Suez Canal. The added distances impose unwelcome costs – in fuel, salaries and foregone business.
Now, all eyes are turning toward another entrance to the Pacific: the relatively deep, wide, pirate-free Bering Strait. To the east, the Northwest Passage offers a 7,000-kilometre shortcut between Northeast Asia and the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. To the west, the Northern Sea Route offers a 10,000-kilometre shortcut to Europe.
These waterways were of little interest to shipping companies when thick "multiyear" sea ice choked the waters along Canada and Russia's northern coasts. But now, climate change is causing the ice to thin and recede. Since 2007, in late summer, both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route have been temporarily ice-free. Within the next decade, the Arctic could experience a complete late-season melt-out – and, with that, a permanent loss of the multiyear ice.
This prospect is celebrated across Asia. The Chinese media call the Northern Sea Route the "Arctic Golden Waterway." Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates that the route along the Russian coast could save China a staggering $60-billion to $120-billion annually.
South Korea has just built a research icebreaker that's now in the Arctic – and the vessel's progress is being followed daily in the national news. The country is also building dozens of ice-strengthened cargo ships and tankers, many of them with dual-directional technology that enables them to sail normally on open seas, then use their propellers to chew their way through sea ice.
Not surprisingly, Asian shipping executives instinctively adhere to the U.S. position on the legal status of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route – that these waterways are "international straits" through which foreign ships can pass without restriction. They worry that Canada's and Russia's position – that these are "internal waters" – might be used to impede their operations.
But, as of yet, no Asian government has taken a public position on the legal status of these Arctic straits, which creates a window of opportunity for both Ottawa and Moscow.
The shipping executives who have gathered in Honolulu readily admit that their interest in Arctic waterways is strictly commercial. They just want assured access to any new and cost-efficient routes.
I point out to them that the Arctic will be a risky place for ships even after the multiyear ice is gone, because of powerful storms, shallow and poorly charted waters, seasonal darkness and the extreme remoteness of the region. When I tell them about the danger of icing – when ocean spray freezes on the superstructure of a ship, causing it to become top-heavy – their eyes grow large with concern.
I suggest that Canada and Russia could provide much of what they'll need, including icebreaking assistance, search-and-rescue, ports of refuge, charts, navigation aids, and ice and weather forecasting. They agreed that discussions are needed between the Arctic nations and major shipping countries.
We even sketch the outlines of a possible agreement, whereby Canada could ensure access and necessary services for Asian shipping companies, in return for financial contributions to infrastructure development and operating budgets. And, finally, we agree that the legal dispute over the Northwest Passage could be sidestepped, by stating that any agreement was "without prejudice" to that issue.
But I don't represent Canada. Our federal government has to make the choice.
Do we continue with a "go it alone" approach in the Northwest Passage and risk confronting the Asian juggernaut? Or do we seek partnerships that could make the Northwest Passage safer and more efficient – for everyone?
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 29 Canadian universities, and the author of Who Owns the Arctic?