Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week appointed a special envoy for the Arctic, veteran diplomat Jim DeHart, as the United States looks to boost its diplomatic presence amid growing Chinese activity in the region.
DeHart’s appointment came a week after Pompeo visited Denmark and re-established a consulate in the semi-autonomous Greenland. It also comes after the U.S. announced a $12 million aid package for Greenland in April and the White House ordered the construction of a new fleet of icebreakers by 2029 in June.
“People are going to look back at this summer as being a pivot point in our diplomatic engagement, our approach to the Arctic, and I think the beginning of what will be sustained effort comprehensive and integrated with all the tools and levers that we have,” DeHart said during a press conference with reporters on Wednesday.
DeHart cited as one main factor for the re-engagement with the region the environmental changes that are making the Arctic more accessible.
“The receding sea ice opens up new opportunities for new sea lanes, transport opportunities, opportunities for resource extraction, seabed mining potential, all sorts of new opportunities, also tourism,” he said. “Before COVID, we had a burst of new tourism in the Arctic and all sorts of people on ships that were not that far north before.”
The other major factor is an “evolving geopolitical situation,” DeHart said.
He said Russia, an Arctic nation, has been increasingly active, including from a security perspective with developing the capabilities of its armed forces in the region.
He said China — not an Arctic nation, but it calls itself a “near-Arctic nation” — is becoming increasingly active there too. China is “clearly interested in investment, including key infrastructure in the Arctic,” he said.
We look at that with some concern because the way that China has approached these issues elsewhere in the world suggests that they may not approach their activities in the Arctic in accordance with the principles that prevail there — of transparency and good governance, and upholding of labor provisions and protections and support for local communities as so forth, so it’s something we have to be watchful for.
DeHart said in contrast, the U.S. is an Arctic nation, with many citizens in the Arctic.
“What we want there in the region is a peaceful region, we want low tension in the Arctic and we want to make sure we are guarding against any possible threats to the homeland.”
“We also want economic growth and development, and development in a way that’s helpful to the local communities of the Arctic, including the indigenous communities, and we want a rules-based order,” he said.
“We want an approach by all nations that are involved there that uphold the principles, and the principles that are reflected in the work of the Arctic Council,” he added.
He said while China sees a governance role for itself in the Arctic, the U.S. does not.
“We see governance being in the realm of those nations that are in the Arctic, and are in the Arctic Circle, and we emphasize their own jurisdiction and sovereignty,” he added.
He added that China has been making efforts to invest in key infrastructure in the Arctic, including in airports that could “potentially be dual-use” — meaning that it could have some military function for China as well as civilian use.
“They’ve been involved in quite a bit of data collection. They’re trying to insert themselves into the 5G market, so they’ve exhibited a significant interest, and I would say, have not always been successful, in large measure I think due to the concerns that arise from China’s interest,” he said.
“If the Chinese want to invest and engage commercially in accordance with the highest standards, that’s one thing, but we all need to be watchful.”