What do China and the United States have in common in the Arctic? At first glance, commonalities may seem few and far between. The United States is an Arctic coastal state with rights and obligations under the Law of the Sea Treaty. China, on the other hand, is not an Arctic littoral nation, although it is interested in the international waters of the Central Arctic. The United States is a member of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum created in 1996 that seeks to enhance environmental protection and to pursue sustainable development in the Arctic; China has been a permanent observer to the Arctic Council since 2013. Both countries actively participate in the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which has been actively engaged in the development of a mandatory Polar Code. Both China and the United States are physically impacted by climate change and are investing in greater scientific research in order to further understand the ongoing rapid transformation of the Arctic. Both countries have or soon will have two icebreakers.
While both China and the United States are deeply involved with the Arctic region, the two countries’ priorities may not always align: China is actively pursuing and has already made investments in new economic opportunities in the Arctic with particular interest in natural and mineral resource extraction and Arctic shipping routes, whereas the United States has largely pursued greater environmental protection. However, both countries seek to address emerging challenges and cultivate new opportunities that a new ocean at the top of the world offers.
It is for these reasons that the United States and China should create a more purposeful dialogue on a range of Arctic issues—from scientific engagement, environmental protection, and sustainable development to governance and international norms. In this context, and with generous support from the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), the CSIS Europe Program along with Tongji University in China co-hosted a forum on the Arctic from May 16–18, 2016, in Washington, D.C.
This report, U.S.-Sino Relations in the Arctic: A Roadmap for Future Cooperation, is the result of fruitful exchanges between the participants and addresses a range of issues: the future of Arctic governance, geopolitical factors shaping the Arctic’s future, international maritime issues in the Central Arctic Ocean, future trends in Arctic sustainable development, and new bilateral scientific research initiatives in the Arctic. It aims to shed light on policy convergence as well as areas of divergence with the ultimate goal of developing strong patterns and instinctive habits of bilateral cooperation in the Arctic.