Arctic intersection: Alaska, the US and China

Top diplomats for two of the world’s largest nations meet in Anchorage
Downtown Anchorage
Downtown Anchorage
Published: Mar. 18, 2021 at 8:13 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The nation’s relationship with China is complicated, just as issues faced in a changing Arctic are also complex. The question is whether there can be ground between the U.S., an Arctic nation, Alaska, an Arctic state, and China, which has strong Arctic interests.

In the weeks and days leading up to face-to-face meetings in Alaska Thursday and Friday, the U.S. Department of State and the military have held firm that China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region has their attention as a growing global threat.

Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command, told a Congressional committee March 10 that China’s policy of internal oppression and external aggression is a serious problem, and called the People’s Republic of China “the greatest long term strategic threat in the 21st century.”

The genocide of ethnic minorities, suppression of democracy and human rights, economic pressure on neighboring nations and attempts to dominate the South China Sea are among a litany of concerns the U.S. must not turn away from, Davidson and the state department have said this month.

Speaking on conditions in the Indo-Pacific region, Davidson told House members that “we must be doing everything possible to deter conflict. Our number one job is to keep the peace, but we absolutely must be prepared to fight and win should competition turn to conflict.”

At the same hearing, David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said the U.S. has long strived to maintain the region as a place “where all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, can pursue economic opportunity, and resolve disputes without coercion, and can exercise the freedoms of navigation overflight, consistent with an open and stable international order.”

“Today this framework is being challenged. The People’s Republic of China seeks to use all elements of its national power to reshape the world order into one that is consistent with its authoritarian model and it’s national goals,” Helvey said.

Yet Alaska, the U.S. and China have shared needs that may require tabling divisive topics to tackle mutual threats, like climate change.

Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Alaska’s News Source that China and the U.S. both experience detrimental effects of climate change.

“They’re both very large, of course, territorial countries with in both cases, if we think of the U.S. southwest for instance, in west — if we think of the western part of China, great vulnerability to drought, desertification, water shortages, but at the same time, a huge concentration of population on coastal zones and coastal areas that in turn are vulnerable to extreme weather events, precipitation storms, but also rising sea levels,” Mehling said.

While politics on divisive issues may be a distraction and a barrier to successful international agreements, Mehling said there may be hope in what he termed the “overlap of interests.”

“One issue area I think would be advancing clean technology, clean energy technologies, making sure that they become commercial and can be deployed, developed, sold in other countries, say for China and the rest of Asia, for the United States of course, the Western — all over the world, really. And I think that’s an area where I could see a lot of cooperation, because, as you know, China has significant manufacturing capacities in areas in some places exceeding what the US has. It also has access to strategic materials like rare earth metals and minerals, et cetera, that the US actually relies on. So there is a lot to be gained by working together and a lot to be lost if it’s purely confrontational,” Mehling said.

“I just hope that they will have the stamina and fortitude to kind of step away from those issues that are really difficult that they have to discuss during this meeting and kind of maybe think about the climate issue a little bit in isolation and just think, really, this is a separate issue and we need to collaborate on this,” Mehling said.

From fishing and food security, energy sources and shipping routes, and emerging green technologies, there may be common ground in contemplating how to harness innovation and manufacturing prowess to the world’s advantage.

Step one is the Anchorage meeting, a first step in re-imagining what the U.S.-China relationship could aspire to under the new U.S. administration.

“This is a this is an important meeting and has, I think, a lot of a lot of purpose, more purpose than people realize, and I hope both parties can walk away with some semblance of confidence that there there’s opportunity in the future,” Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I would see maybe some discussion coming up concerning on the economic side, perhaps an opportunity to eventually produce natural gas for the state, especially if it’s going to be an export model and in particular if it’s going to be LNG [liquified natural gas], and Alaska has kind of a limited market when it comes to that. And a lot of it’s going to be proximity. So the Southeast Asian nations are going to be some of the primary clients or customers for such a product that’s basically stranded in Alaska right now,” Bouffard said.

Bouffard said it might also be possible that a sensitive topic in the commercial fishing world — IUU, or illegal, unreported, under-regulated fishing — might come up during the talks. It’s a challenging issue, since it’s not entirely clear if such fishing violations are sanctioned by the Chinese government, and violations can be difficult to prove, Bouffard said.

Also, “the sheer size of the Chinese illicit fishing fleet, we just don’t have enough resources to chase down all of the the criminal activity in that regard. The Coast Guard is doing an outstanding job in that regard. They published a new strategy to combat this issue last year, and it definitely kind of steps up the concerns and objectives,” Bouffard said.

While the two nations work on their relationship, Alaska’s state-level connection to China is substantial.

In May of 2018, China was Alaska’s top trade partner. The year prior, in 2017, Alaska exported $1.32 billion in goods to the country, or about 26% of Alaska’s total exports to the world market valuing $4.93 billion.

Shelley James, director of International Trade for the State of Alaska in 2018, told Alaska’s News Source at the time that China had “been our number one trade partner for the last seven years.”

Exports include timber, lead and gold mineral ores, and petroleum byproducts. But seafood is by far the biggest market.

China is nearly a billion dollar export market for Alaska Seafood, according to data presented to the Alaska legislature by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in 2019.

In his address to members of the U.S. House, admiral Davidson said “the U.S. remains committed to free, fair and reciprocal trade, shared access to global markets, good governance, and human rights and civil liberties.”

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