- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2019

The Trump administration on Monday pushed back against China’s policy to grow its influence in the Arctic and warned that further Russian expansion in the strategic corridor could lead to violence, underscoring how the region has transformed into a key geopolitical battlefield for the world’s preeminent powers.

“The region has become an arena for power and for competition,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a speech in Finland at the outset of an annual meeting of the Arctic Council. “And the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future.”

“We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to Arctic interests and its real estate,” Mr. Pompeo added in his address, which came just before a one-on-one meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Mr. Pompeo’s remarks highlighted the seriousness with which the Trump administration takes the threats of Russian and Chinese expansion in the Arctic. On Russia, in particular, the secretary said there’s already ample evidence that Moscow is taking an increasingly aggressive approach, and he specifically called out Russia’s claim over the international waters of 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,” the secretary said. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of Army boots.”

Any Russian expansion anywhere on the globe, Mr. Pompeo said, should be viewed with great caution given Moscow’s recent aggressive history in Ukraine and elsewhere.

“These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior here in the Arctic,” he said. “We know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent.”

Despite Russia’s aggressive actions, Mr. Pompeo stressed that the nation — as a member of the Arctic Council — has legitimate claims and interests in the region.

China, he said, does not.

“There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states,” Mr. Pompeo said, adding that the shortest distance from China to the Arctic is 900 miles.

“No third category exists — and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” he said.

U.S. officials say China has set its sights on the North Atlantic and Arctic Circle, planning to establish a new “Polar Silk Road” through the region in the coming years. The move is part of Beijing’s broader plan to increase its footprint in Africa, the South China Sea, and elsewhere across the globe.

Following the speech, Chinese officials blasted Mr. Pompeo and said China can and will increase its influence in the Arctic region.

“He says it’s a new era. OK, competition. Let’s see who can get more friends,” China’s special representative for Arctic Affairs Gao Feng told reporters. “On the one hand, he can warn. How people react to that is another matter.”

The Pentagon’s annual assessment of Chinese military power released last week said that over the past 12 months, China has begun moving a number of icebreakers into the Arctic region, while simultaneously creating new, civilian-operated research stations in Norway, Iceland and other critical locations in the high North Atlantic.

China also is dispatching a number of next-generation warships to operate in the region’s harsh conditions as a way to secure those much-needed resources and sea lanes, and the Chinese icebreaker vessel, the Xuelong, has conducted nine deployments in and around the Arctic Circle as of last September.

“We need to examine these activities closely, and we keep the experience we have learned of other nations in mind,” Mr. Pompeo said. “China’s pattern of … aggressive behavior elsewhere should inform what we do and how it might treat the Arctic.”

The newest class of Chinese icebreaker, the Xuelong 2, is slated to ship out this September. While designated as “research vessels,” both icebreaker variants are built to blast through nearly 5 feet of solid ice.

The U.S. Navy currently has no icebreaker ships able to traverse the frozen waters in the region. The Coast Guard only has six icebreakers, three medium and three heavy polar icebreakers.

American allies in the region are already voicing their concerns over China’s expansion in the waters of the Arctic and Northern Atlantic. Denmark has publicly protested efforts by Beijing to establish a research outpost in Greenland, while other northern European countries have sought to curb China’s expansion.

The U.S. also will increase security efforts in the region, the secretary said, which are in part, in response to Russia’s recent moves. He said the military is leading military exercises, expanding funding for the Coast Guard, rebuilding the icebreaker fleet, and is establishing a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs.

“Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness,” Mr. Pompeo said. “And we stand ready to ensure that it does not become so.”

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