The US Throws Down the Gauntlet at the Arctic Council’s Finland Meeting

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Alone again, naturally? [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The Arctic Council has traditionally sought to discourage dialogues relating to hard security affairs in its meetings, instead placing stronger emphasis on issues encompassing regional economic development, indigenous affairs, and the growing physical and socio-anthropological effects of regional climate change, including the ongoing melting of the Arctic ice cap. The Council’s 1996 founding document incorporated that preference to keep military-strategic issues off the table, and even in the wake of cooled relations between Russia and other Council members following the 2014 Ukraine crises, it was still informally understood that military matters were to be ‘checked at the door’ of Council gatherings.

Such a point of order appeared to be completely lost on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week, as he gave a blustery and at times bombastic speech at the opening of this year’s Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland. While studiously avoiding the subject of climate change in the Arctic, he instead sought to promote a different narrative regarding the challenges of the region, focusing critically on Moscow’s Arctic policies, as well as its actions in Ukraine, and seeking to elevate China alongside Russia as the second great threat to Arctic regional affairs.

Mr Pompeo’s presentation, which one commentator referred to as ‘a thunderstorm’ [In Norwegian] was extremely light on descriptions of upcoming US Arctic policies, and instead emphasised the economic potential of the region, including the boast that, ‘America is the world’s leader in caring for the environment,’. This despite the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 and repeated claims by the US government that climate change is a hoax. Mr Pompeo’s speech strongly indicates American policy in the Arctic under the Donald Trump government is becoming more one-dimensional and unilateral in comparison with its predecessor.

After offering a brief description of American history in the Arctic, including the nineteenth century purchase of what was then the Alaskan Territory from Russia, Mr Pompeo wasted little time in outlining what he saw were looming security challenges to the Arctic, starting surprisingly with China. Beijing was singled out in the remarks as being a formal observer in the Arctic Council, (a position it has held since 2013, and at present twelve other governments have identical status). Pompeo called into question China’s interests in respecting the sovereignty of the region, despite China having asserted just that in policy speeches and in its 2018 Arctic White Paper.

Then, Mr Pompeo, taking issue with China describing itself as a ‘near-Arctic state’, stressed that ‘There are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.’ In addition to the harsh tone of the language used here, his words appeared to call into question whether other non-Arctic states, including in Asia and Europe, would be similarly marginalised in key areas of Arctic decision-making.

Moreover, these specific comments appeared to ignore the fact that although the Arctic Council is the most prominent decision-making body in the region, it is far from the only outlet Beijing has used to develop a political and economic presence in the Arctic, including bilateral economic agreements, (for example, joint investments in Russian fossil fuel development enterprises, a free trade agreement with Iceland and one being negotiated with Norway), and scientific diplomacy. Shanghai will be hosting the next breakout forum of the Arctic Circle conference later this week, an event expected to showcase the Chinese government’s widening regional interests. While there may be no de jure third category of states in the Arctic, de facto is an entirely different story.

Advocating the elimination of China from Arctic discourses is unlikely to receive much of a hearing from other corners of the Council, especially since the decision to admit China as an observer in that organisation, while at times controversial went ahead partially out of concern that China would simply seek another route into the region if it was shut out of the Council’s observer roster.

As Valur Ingimundarson wrote in a 2014 paper [paywall] on the Kiruna Ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, which concluded with the decision to admit China, (along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea), as formal observers, China’s economic and political weight in the region had grown to the point where shutting it out would simply prompt Beijing to go around the Council in developing its regional interests. While China has expressed satisfaction with its current role in the Arctic Council, it remains wary of what has been called the ‘blueberry pie problem’, meaning the potential for the Arctic to be divided up amongst the eight Arctic states, with no role for any other actor. Mr Pompeo’s remarks will do nothing to allay those concerns.

Moreover, Mr Pompeo’s suggestion that while Chinese political discourse in the Arctic was not acceptable, ‘That’s not to say Chinese investment is unwelcome- indeed, quite the opposite. The United States and Arctic nations welcome transparent Chinese investments that reflect economic interest and national security ambitions,’. The underlying meaning appeared to be that China should just leave its money on the table, say nothing, and walk out.

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives his opening speech, ‘Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,’ at the Arctic Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi, Finland on 6 May [Photo by Arne Holm, High North News]
On China, Mr Pompeo also sought to draw connections between Beijing’s interests in adding the Arctic Ocean to its Belt and Road initiative, raising the spectre of Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and citing the extreme case of Sri Lanka as a warning sign, (despite recent data published by the New York-based think tank Rhodium Group suggesting that the ‘debt trap’ narrative may be considerably embellished). The South China Sea was also mentioned by Mr Pompeo as an illustration of China’s revisionist policies in the Arctic Ocean, ignoring the fact the South China Sea dispute is based on conflicting legal and sovereignty claims which are completely absent in the Arctic. China claims no maritime or land space in the Arctic, and noted in its Arctic White Paper that it had no interest in doing so.

Mr Gao Feng, China’s Arctic Ambassador, who attended the speech, was critical of Mr Pompeo’s remarks, stating that they were indicative of ‘a new bad era’, along with the US singling out Russia for public rebuke. He also commented that the speech reflected the idea of ‘a competition of powers. Okay, competition? Let’s see… who can get more friends?’. The following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Shan Guang suggested [In Chinese] that Mr Pompeo was mis-categorising Chinese policies in the Arctic and speaking against the need for peaceful regional cooperation, and ‘confounding black and white’ (wanquan shi diandao heibai 完全是颠倒黑白) on the issue. Mr Shan added that Beijing was seeking engagement in the region based in an ‘open, cooperative and “win-win” (gongying 共赢) manner’.

The recent military activity by Russia in its Arctic regions was also criticised in the speech as evidence of a growing aggressive stance, seemingly dismissing the point that many of these endeavours, including re-opening previous abandoned installations in the Arctic, have reflected the increasing importance of the Russian Arctic to Moscow’s economic interests, and the anticipation of greater levels of maritime sea traffic in the region’s northern sea route necessitating increased monitoring. Mr Pompeo focused on the belief that ‘Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots,’ while minimising potential Russian military activities outside of its Arctic borders, including submarine activity, (the largest nuclear submarine built to date, the Russian vessel Belgorod / Белгород was launched last month at the Arctic port of Severodvinsk / Северодвинск), as well as air incursions.

In contesting recently-outlined Russian plans to heavily regulate passage through the NSR, Mr Pompeo also took an opportunity for a backhanded swipe at Canada for its policies towards the Northwest Passage (NWP), suggesting Canadian claims that the NWP is considered Canadian waters was ‘illegitimate’, upending an informal ‘agree to disagree’ stance on the matter between Ottawa and Washington, (with the latter claiming that the NWP is actually international waters), as well as a 1988 bilateral agreement on Arctic cooperation.

Also according to the speech, China was accused of developing infrastructure in the Northwest Territories, an assertion that was quickly called out by experts who noted that no such plans exist. The only active Chinese investment in the Canadian Arctic is a lithium mine in the Abitibi Region of Québec, which had been financed by the Jilin Jien Nickel Industry company, and subsequently by the Ningde-based battery-making firm Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL).

On 7 May, the meetings concluded, for the first time without a formal joint declaration, with the eight government participants instead releasing an abbreviated Ministerial Statement [pdf], using broad diplomatic language and omitting mention of climate change, reflecting the US ‘denial’ stance on the subject. The differences of viewpoint regarding the inclusion of climate change concerns in the final documentation were noted in a speech [pdf] by the Chair of the gathering, Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who stated ‘A majority of us noted with concern the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and its findings,’.

The Trump government is expected to release a new Arctic defence strategy by the beginning of June this year, and based on recent events, Washington will likely continue to press the idea of Arctic security being threatened by great power competition as opposed to economic and environmental challenges. As Mr Pompeo stated in his opening speech, ‘we must not allow this forum to fall victim to subversion- from Arctic or non-Arctic states,’.

However, the results of this year’s Ministerial meetings, which will likely be known for the sharp and antagonistic policy turns by the United States delegation during the event, may result in a different set of negative circumstances for the Arctic Council and for Arctic diplomacy as a whole.

[Many thanks to Mingming Shi for her assistance in the researching of this article.]