Pompeo Slaps Down China’s Arctic Ambitions: There Are No ‘Near-Arctic’ States

By Patrick Goodenough | May 7, 2019 | 4:26am EDT
The Chinese icebreaker Xuelong, or 'Snow Dragon.' (Photo: Polar Research Institute of China)

(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of Tuesday’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a speech in Finland Monday to challenge China’s claim to be a “near-Arctic” country, amid attempts to extend its ambitious Belt-and-Road initiative (BRI) to the vast northern region.

He also criticized Russia’s approach to the Arctic, accusing both China and Russia of working against U.S. interests there.

Speaking in Rovaniemi in northern Finland, Pompeo argued that countries were categorized either as Arctic – as are the eight members of the council – or as non-Arctic.

“Beijing claims to be a ‘near-Arctic state,’ yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic [circle] is 900 miles,” he pointed out. “There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.”

Pompeo said transparent Chinese investment in the region was welcome, but warned about extending to the Arctic some of the troubling characteristics of the BRI, China’s massive infrastructure and investment program envisaging land and sea routes stretching across Asia and the Middle East into Europe and Africa.

Critics say China’s investments abroad are often predatory in nature, enmesh poor countries in debt traps, and breed corruption.

“Let’s just ask ourselves,” Pompeo said, “Do we want Arctic nations broadly – or indigenous communities specifically – to go the way of former government 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?” he asked.

“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? I think the answers are pretty clear.”

Pentagon concerns

The Arctic holds significant untapped natural resources including oil and gas reserves, and as sea routes become more accessible due to receding sea ice – attributed to rising temperatures – new opportunities for trade are opening up. Pompeo noted that the time to travel by sea between Asia and the West could be cut by as many as 20 days, using the Northeast Passage.

Last month Russia announced plans to link the northern sea route with China’s “maritime silk road” – the sea route element of the BRI.

The red arrow top right indicates the Chinese territory nearest to the Arctic Circle. (Map: CIA World Fact Book)

Pompeo noted that China is “already developing shipping lanes in the Arctic Ocean,” describing it as part of a familiar pattern, which sees Beijing use Chinese funds, companies and workers to develop critical infrastructure, and in some cases establish a permanent Chinese security presence.

He pointed to the Pentagon’s recent report on China’s military, released last week, which warned that China could use civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence, including deploying submarines there

China already operates icebreakers in the region, has research stations in Norway and Iceland, and is proposing setting up a research station and satellite ground station in Greenland, a Danish territory.

“China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere,” Pompeo said, “should inform what we do and how it might treat the Arctic.”

The eight members of the Arctic Council are the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway.

Six years ago the Obama administration joined the other council members in approving observer status for China.

They did so despite concerns raised about the wisdom of granting a foothold to a non-democratic government with a poor record of dealing with territorial and maritime disputes, of mistreatment of indigenous minorities, and scant respect for non-governmental organizations.

Respect for the rights of indigenous peoples in the region is a priority for the Arctic Council, and it also works closely with NGOs, a number of which hold observer status. Apart from founder member Russia, all other council members and the dozen observer states are democracies.

The Pentagon report said China’s increased activities and engagement in the Arctic began after it won observer status.

In his speech Pompeo also took Russia for task for attempts to assert authority over the northern sea route linking European and Asian markets.

“Moscow already illegally demands 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 with their demands,” he said.

He also expressed concern about Russian militarization of the region, recalling its reopening of a Cold War-era Arctic military base in 2014, its renovation of old bases, and building of new sites and ports.

Later, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Pompeo told reporters at his hotel that the U.S. and others want “free and open navigation” in the Arctic and want “the private sector to dominate and create success and wealth and security and free passage in the Arctic.”

In an implied reference to Russia, he added that “those that choose another route, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that they don’t prevent what it is we’ve laid out as our objectives, and the objectives of the seven other council members as well.”

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