Pompeo Jabs China and Russia over Their Growing Ambitions in the Arctic

Members of the Chinese Yilite-Mulin Arctic Pole Expedition raise the Chinese national flag in Longyearbyen on Svalbard, Norway, to set the site of a Chinese research station on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2001. (AP Photo/Xinhua/Yuan Man)
AP Photo/Xinhua/Yuan Man

ROVANIEMI, FINLAND — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech filled with sharp jabs and barbs at China and Russia a day ahead of an annual Arctic Council Ministerial meeting with member nations in Finland.

He warned the eight members of the Arctic Council of Chinese encroachment and increasing Russian militarization in a region rich with natural resources and emerging sea lanes.

“We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to Arctic interests,” he said. “The region has become an arena of global power and competition. And the eight Arctic States must adapt to this new future.”

The Council’s eight members include the Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. While China is not a member state of the Arctic Council, it gained observer status in 2013.

Pompeo said China’s observer status in the Council is “contingent upon its respect for the sovereign rights of Arctic states,” but that China’s “words and actions raise doubts about its intentions.”

Pompeo said China’s investment of nearly $90 billion in the Arctic between 2012 and 2017 reflected “national security ambitions,” instead of the region’s economic interests.

“Beijing attempts to develop critical infrastructure using Chinese money, Chinese companies, and Chinese workers — in some cases, to establish a permanent Chinese security presence,” he said. Those investments, he said, are “all part of a familiar pattern.”

He cited cases where Chinese investments have gone south, or where Chinese activities contributed to increased regional tensions and environmental devastation.

Do we want Arctic nations broadly, or indigenous communities specifically, to go the way of former governments in Sri Lanka or Malaysia, ensnared by debt and corruption?

Do we want crucial Arctic infrastructure to end up like Chinese-constructed roads in Ethiopia, crumbling and dangerous after only a few years?

Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?

Do we want the fragile Arctic environment exposed to the same ecological devastation caused by China’s fishing fleet in the seas off its coast, or unregulated industrial activity in its own country? The answers should be clear.

He also noted a Pentagon report released last week that said China could use its growing civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence, and possibly deploy submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks.

Pompeo also cast doubt over Beijing’s claim to be a “Near-Arctic State.”

“The shortest distance between China and the Arctic Circle is 900 miles. There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists — and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” he said.

In contrast, Pompeo described the U.S.’s claims to being an Arctic nation, saying that even before the purchase of Alaska, U.S. ties to the region have “stretched back for decades.”

“Now here we are, multiple generations later. This is our time to appreciate it like never before. This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation, for the Arctic’s future,” he said.

Pompeo also blasted Russia, who unlike China, is a Council member.

He said the U.S. is concerned about Russia’s claim over international waters of the Northern Sea Route, and its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road.

He said Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply.

“These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots,” he said.

He noted that Russia announced its intent to increase its military presence in the Arctic in 2014, and has re-opened a Cold War-era Arctic military base there.

“Since then, thanks in part to its large icebreaker fleet, Russia has been able to renovate old bases and infrastructure. It claims to have built 475 new military sites, including bases north of the Arctic Circle, as well 16 new deep-water ports. It secures this presence through sophisticated new air defense systems and anti-ship missiles,” he said.

He noted that other member states, like Canada, also have made territorial claims to international waters, but said, Russia’s actions deserve the special attention of this Council, in part because of their “sheer scale.”

He added, “But also because we know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent. 13,000 people have been killed due to Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine,” he said.

“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness,” he said.

Pompeo said it was the first time the U.S. has given a major address outside of the Arctic Council Ministerial’s proceedings. A Chinese delegation of a few officials were present in the audience of several hundred.

Pompeo touted American efforts in the region. He said when the U.S. chaired the Council, it worked to prevent suicides among indigenous youth, and funded local sanitation projects in rural villages.

He also compared U.S.’s leadership of clean energy initiatives with Russia’s and China’s.

“Our energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 14% between 2005 and 2017, while the rest of the world’s rose by more than 20% Our black carbon emissions are down 16% since 2013 and on track to drop by nearly half by 2025, the best of any Arctic country,” he said.

“It isn’t clear that Russia, meanwhile, is reducing emissions at all, despite being the largest emitter of black carbon in the Arctic,” he said. “[China’s] CO2 emissions more than tripled between 2000 and 2016. Do we want that kind of output in one of the most precious and pristine corners of the world?”

He also said the Trump administration would fortify America’s security and diplomatic presence in the Arctic.

“On the security side, partly in response to Russia’s destabilizing activities, we are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs,” he said.

“On the diplomatic side, we are eager to strengthen our presence across the region and enhance our engagement with Arctic partners. I’ll have more to announce about that later this week,” he said.

He urged member nations to have “increased vigilance,” and to hold each other accountable.

“We face a new era of challenge. Now is a time for increased vigilance,” he said. “We must hold each other accountable. And we must not allow this forum to fall victim to subversion—from Arctic or non-Arctic states.”

“Through courage and partnership, we can succeed. And our nations — and the entire world — can look forward to a bright, peaceful, sustainable future for this indispensable region,” he said.

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