Donald Trump has finally found an international organization he likes — a highly select club whose members preside over a frozen wasteland atop of the world.
The Trump administration will throw a spotlight this week on America’s presence in the Arctic, a region the president’s team sees as “an arena of global power and competition,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will put it in a speech Monday in Finland. “Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness,” he’ll say, according to advance excerpts obtained by POLITICO.
Pompeo’s address, which comes ahead of meetings with officials from the seven other countries with Arctic territory, will take aim at America’s two main strategic rivals, Russia and China. Pompeo will put special emphasis on Chinese behavior, suggesting that Beijing is using the region as the latest venue for its territorial aggression.
“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” Pompeo will ask.
“Under President Trump, we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence” in the Arctic, Pompeo will declare. “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.”
Then, on a stop in Greenland, Pompeo will announce a bolstered U.S. diplomatic presence in the semi-autonomous Danish territory, which the administration worries is vulnerable to encroaching Chinese influence. “With our presence here firmly established, America is renewing its leadership in this region, and we are counting on our partners in Greenland and Denmark to lead with us,” he will say.
Part of the emerging strategy includes engaging with the Arctic Council, a once-sleepy group of the eight countries that border the polar region. (Large parts of Alaska, including Prudhoe Bay, lie within the Arctic Circle, giving the U.S. legal claims there.)
In its short existence, the council has mainly focused on a few “soft” issues: coordinating research on climate change, sustainable oil and gas development, the environment, fishing rights, freedom of navigation and search and rescue missions.
But the Trump team, which is generally skeptical of multilateral institutions, aims to inject some steel into the Arctic conversation. And ironically, an issue the president has dismissed as a “hoax” perpetrated by China — global warming — is providing fresh urgency as America’s rivals muscle into the resource-rich region to seize opportunities presented by the melting ice.
“Our competitors were just as emboldened by our retreat in the Arctic as they were in the Middle East and Asia,” a senior State Department official said. “The prior administration didn’t raise the alarm. It’s been building up over many, many years because Russia and China saw a power vacuum.”
Russia, with its vast northern reaches, dominates the Arctic and U.S. officials complain of Moscow’s aggressive behavior there: refitting submarines, boarding ships, reopening bases and claiming exclusive rights to certain waterways. Russia is also developing three new nuclear-powered icebreakers to add to its fleet of at least 40, deepening concerns that the U.S. lacks the wherewithal to push back.
But the new player in the region is China, which has styled itself a “near-Arctic” country — a self- appellation U.S. officials find absurd: One senior State Department official called it “a made-up, fantasy definition” worthy of George Orwell; another rattled off the precise distance between Beijing and the Arctic Circle (1,844 miles). In the last few years, China has invested in Iceland; built scientific research centers in Norway; and sought to build airports, snap up mines and buy naval facilities in Greenland — all part of Beijing’s strategy to develop a “Polar Silk Road” to crack open shipping routes made newly accessible by climate change.
“The Russians punch you in the face right away. The Chinese are more subtle,” one State Department official observed.
China is not an official member of the Arctic Council, which consists of Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. But China was granted observer status in 2013 with U.S. approval, to the chagrin of the Trump administration.
The Pentagon is likewise raising alarms about China’s Arctic ambitions, warning in a recent report that Beijing could use the cover of science to plant a military toehold there. “Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report reads.
Greenland is emerging as the centerpiece of the State Department’s effort to foil China’s Arctic dreams. America’s ties to the frigid, 800,000-square-mile territory go back to the 1940s and have historically been military in nature; the U.S. Air Force maintains its northernmost base in Thule, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, which also hosts radar systems that scan for nuclear missile launches against the U.S. homeland.
The U.S. once maintained a consulate in Greenland; it closed in 1953. But the Trump administration wants to foster warmer diplomatic and commercial relations with the sparsely populated Danish territory, which is hungry to diversify its economy beyond fishing. From now on, a Foreign Service officer will be spending roughly half the year in Nuuk, Greenland’s colorful capital, and trekking around remote areas by boat and dogsled. A local hire will be based permanently in Nuuk, allowing year-round access to Greenlanders looking to with engage the United States.
The move, U.S. officials say, is just one small step that speaks to a growing administration-wide commitment to countering the expanding reach of China, whose forays in the Arctic have also alarmed America’s Nordic allies. In 2016, Denmark nixed China’s offer to buy an abandoned naval base in Gronnedal, on Greenland’s southwestern tip, with U.S. encouragement. Last year, the U.S. convinced Denmark to counter Chinese offers to help build three international airports in Greenland, which Greenlanders hope will allow direct flights to the United States and Europe. The Pentagon issued its ownletter promising to invest in airports in Greenland that could be used for both civilian and military purposes, a move the Danish government welcomed.
Denmark, a NATO ally, is “willing to fight with Americans shoulder-to-shoulder and do things that many of our allies won’t,” said U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands in an interview. “They welcome trade by nations that don’t take hostages.”
Pompeo is planning to stop in Nuuk, where he’ll make remarks encouraging free and transparent investment in Greenland — along with more sharp warnings about China’s “playbook in the Arctic” — then jaunt to a nearby air base to visit with the pilots who ferry U.S. scientists to spots on Greenland’s melting ice cap. Before that, he’ll also visit Finland on Monday, where he’s giving his speech laying out the administration’s Arctic policy and joining the Arctic Council’s regular meeting of foreign ministers.
Many experts are skeptical the U.S. will be able to sustain a greater focus on Arctic, particularly given Congress’ long reluctance to shell out the funds needed to reassert America’s presence in the region, and the disjointed approach of various government agencies with stakes in the region.
“Frankly, this was not in anyone’s budget,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic International Studies, who argued in a recent analysis that the United States has been lagging behind in the Arctic for at least a decade.
Some former officials also see more continuity than change in the new policy, pointing to growing NATO interest in the Arctic that dates back to the Obama years. And they note that the Trump administration has alienated Nordic countries with its skeptical stance on global warming.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had sought to remove references to climate change and the Paris Accords from an Arctic Council declaration, leading to an impasse with other members, who insisted they be included.
“Our verbal gymnastics to try to get a declaration without ‘climate change’ or ‘Paris’ in it — that’s hard to bridge,” said Conley.
Pompeo’s response will be to cite statistics showing that America’s “energy-related CO2 emissions fell by 14 percent between 2005 and 2017, while the rest of the world’s rose by more than 20 percent.” He’ll add: “We’re achieving our reductions the American way: through scientific and technological innovation that enhances our energy security and our economic growth, rather than stifling development through burdensome regulations.”
The secretary’s speech could also be seen as an attempt to insert security issues into a forum meant for quiet collaboration on scientific and environmental research, cautioned Elizabeth Buchanan, an Australian expert on Arctic policy: “The Arctic Council does not host these discussions, and all agree to keep it that way.”
There’s no denying the U.S. has failed to match Russia’s frenzy of activity in the High North, which includes more than a dozen new airfields and deepwater ports over the last decade. Russian jets have buzzed NATO fighters, and the Russian military established an Arctic command in 2015 to coordinate its growing activities.
“Obama did try to have a more cooperative approach with Russia in the Arctic,” a former U.S. official involved in Arctic policy said. “It failed; the Russians weren’t all that receptive and [the 2014 invasion of] Ukraine derailed the limited prospects there were for cooperation.”
The U.S. Navy has shown little interest in the Arctic for decades, though that’s changing. Last year it sentan aircraft carrier, the USS Harry Truman, to the Norwegian Sea for the first time since 1991. The Truman made a point of steaming across the “GIUK Gap,” a waterway around Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom that strategists see as a crucial naval chokepoint. The Navy also resurrected the 2nd Fleet — which was shuttered in 2011 — to counter increased Russian activity in the Atlantic Ocean.
For years, a running complaint among advocates of a more robust U.S. presence in the Arctic was that the Coast Guard had just one working heavy icebreaker: the Polar Star, a 43-year-old rustbucket that breaks down often and spends much of its time on the other side of the world — Antarctica. At one point, the Coast Guard was even shopping for new parts for the Polar Star on eBay.
The push to build new icebreakers briefly became a casualty of politics last year when the House reallocated money meant for the ships to build President Trump’s wall along the Mexican border. Finally, in February 2018, Congress relented and approved spending to requisition one new heavy icebreaker, and President Trump promptly signed the bill.
Trump groused about the price tag — the ship will cost north of $750 million to build — but he hailed the new ship on a phone call to servicemembers last December. “The good part is it’s the most powerful in the world,” he said. “The ice is in big trouble when that thing gets finished. It’ll go right through it. It’s very expensive, but that’s OK.”
It could be years before the new ship comes online, however, and nobody thinks just one new icebreaker will be enough. “If you see Russia building tens of icebreakers and the U.S. doesn’t do anything about it, that’s a problem,” a senior State Department official said.
The post Pompeo aims to counter China’s ambitions in the Arctic appeared first on Politico.