The Trump administration warned China and Russia on Monday that the U.S. won’t stand for aggressive moves in the Arctic region, which is rapidly opening up to development and commerce as temperatures warm and sea ice melts.
In a speech in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. will compete for influence in the Arctic and counter attempts to make it the strategic preserve of any one or two nations. He said the rule of law must prevail for the Arctic to remain peaceful and slammed both China and Russia for what he said were coercive practices that would destabilize the “high North” if repeated.
“The region has become an arena of global power and competition, and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future,” Pompeo said in the speech, delivered a day before he participates in a meeting of foreign ministers from the Arctic Council.
In addition to the U.S., Russia and Finland, the council includes Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
He said the council had once been able to focus solely on non-controversial scientific, environmental and cultural issues but that the profound changes in the Arctic’s environment and strategic rivalries no longer offered that luxury.
“We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to Arctic interests and its real estate,” he said.
For the U.S. he said that means boosting America’s security and diplomatic presence with new military exercises, icebreakers and expanded Coast Guard Operations.
Pompeo took particular aim at China, which, unlike Russia, does not have any territory or claim in the Arctic.
Chinese attempts to inject itself into the region’s affairs by pushing massive infrastructure projects and commercial investments must be checked, Pompeo said. He rejected China’s assertion that it is a “near-Arctic nation.”
“There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States,” he said. “No third category exists-and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”
Points to untapped Arctic reserves
Pompeo said responsible Chinese investment is welcome in the Arctic but said China’s history of predatory activities elsewhere are cause for concern.
“China’s pattern of aggressive behaviour elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic,” he said, noting its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which has alarmed many of its smaller neighbours. “Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” he asked.
Similarly, Pompeo warned that Russia’s intentions in the Arctic, where it has embarked on a massive military expansion campaign, may prove destabilizing given its past record.
“We know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent,” he said, pointing to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness.”
Despite Pompeo’s warnings and defence of U.S. positions, many council members and observers are equally alarmed by the Trump administration’s environmental policies and skepticism of climate change. Many of those critics fear the administration is intent on exploiting the Arctic with no thought for its consequences or mitigation.
A prepared text of Pompeo’s speech, for example, ran to 2,400 words but did not mention “climate change.” He spoke of “steady reductions in sea ice” but did not address the cause, focusing instead on the opportunity those reductions present. “Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century’s Suez and Panama Canals,” he said.
He called the Arctic “a frontier of opportunity and abundance” with untouched oil and gas reserves, unmined uranium, raw earth minerals, precious metals and gems.
Pompeo sought to assuage environmental concerns by committing to safe and responsible development.
And, he pointed to the U.S. record on reducing greenhouse gas emissions despite President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Critics argue that those reductions are the result of policies enacted before Trump took office and could be reversed.