US Secretary of State calls Russia’s Arctic ambitions ‘illegal’

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. Credit: Still from Obama Administration White House video

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that Russia’s efforts to control an Arctic shipping lane were illegal, marking the first major international challenge to Moscow’s cultivation of the Northern Sea Route as one of its central economic goals.

Speaking as he arrived in northern Finland for a meeting of nations with territory on the Arctic, Pompeo said Russia is behaving aggressively in the region and that China’s actions there should also be watched as polar tensions over global warming and access to fossil fuel and mineral reserves mount.

“In the Northern Sea Route, 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,” Pompeo told delegates of the Arctic Council, a body designed to manage regional co-operation, during a gathering in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Countries have been scrambling to claim territory in the Arctic – or, like China, boost their presence there – as thawing ice raises the possibility of exploiting much of the world’s remaining undiscovered reserves of oil and gas, plus huge deposits of minerals such as zinc, iron and rare earth metals.

Climate change is also opening a shipping corridor between Europe and Asia, which is said to lop days off more conventional routes via the Suez Canal.

Russia has funneled enormous resources into the Arctic, hoping to exploit the fossil fuel reserves along its northern coast. Moscow also intends to exert control over east-west shipping traffic with its flotilla of nuclear icebreakers. Fully one tenths of Russia’s economic investments are now in the Arctic region. Next year, the UN is expected to rule on a claim that could grant Russia territorial control of the Arctic Shelf all the way to the North Pole.

President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Arctic shipping traffic increase, and last year ordered his government to boost cargo volumes passing through the Northern Sea Route to 80 million tons a year – a fourfold uptick over present levels.

China’s increasing interest in the Arctic, and its developing friendship with Russia, is critical to reaching that goal. Since 2013, China has had observer status in the Arctic Council. For the past 16 years, it has maintained a research station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. China is also the biggest foreign shareholder in Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas projects, which will rely on Northern Sea Route shipments for exports.

And last year, Beijing revealed its “Polar Silk Road” policy paper, in which it envisions spearheading a massive investment and infrastructure development in the Arctic region.

It was this alignment of Russian and Chinese ambitions that Pompeo singled out in his remarks to the Arctic Council.

“We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road,” he said.

Still, Pompeo’s harshest words were for China, whose claims on the Arctic he said were illegitimate.

“Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic state,” Pompeo in reference to the Polar Silk Road policy paper. “Yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are Arctic states, and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. China claiming otherwise entitles them to exactly nothing.”

The Arctic Council’s member states are Canada, Denmark, Finland, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia ­­– ministers of which expressed surprise at Pompeo’s harsh language for Beijing.

“The Pentagon warned just last week that China could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence, including by deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” Pompeo told delegates. “We need to examine these activities closely, and keep the experience of other nations in mind. China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic.”

icebreaker2 The 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker bringing politicians to the North Pole. (Photo: Murmansky Vestnik)

The mandate of the Arctic Council is to discuss sustainable development and environmental protection in the North. The countries meet biennially to transfer the rotating chairmanship and sign a declaration that establishes their priorities for the next two years. On Tuesday, Finland handed the chairmanship to Iceland.

Pompeo didn’t mention climate change in his speech. But he tried to burnish America’s environmental bona fides in the Arctic citing its involvement in everything from signing the 2018 moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean to its reduction of black carbon emissions by 16 percent since 2016 ­­– something Pompeo described as “the best of any Arctic country.”

He added a dig at Moscow and Beijing, saying, “it isn’t clear Russia is reducing emissions at all” and that “China’s CO2 emissions tripled between 2000 and 2016.”

Despite lip service to emissions, it was US objections to including language about climate change in final joint statement from the Council that upended the meeting’s conclusion on Tuesday.

It was the first time that the Arctic Council cancelled its final statement since the group was formed in 1996.

 

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no