The American restructuring of its US Marine Corps in Norway should be seen in relation to developments in the relationship between the USA and China, and the fact that the USA wants to make itself relevant in a potential conflict, says Professor Øystein Tunsjø at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS).
China’s ambitions and the international conflict between China, USA and Russia were on the agenda when Nordland Research Institute, Nord University and Stormen Library invited to the Lytring debate last Thursday.
Professor Øystein Tunsjø at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS) started the debate by emphasizing that he would not characterize the conflict between the USA and China as a new cold war.
“I would argue that we do not live in a new Cold War, but rather in a new super-conflict characterized by conflicted co-existence”, Tunsjø said.
The USA and China are linked in ways that are very different from how the USA and the Soviet Union were in the previous super-conflict.
One of the key differences from the super-conflict between the USA and the Soviet Union, referred to as the Cold War, is the geographical pressure, he says. During the Cold War, the High North and the Arctic were key strategic areas, whereas the pressure is different in the region today.
“The High North matters today too, however, unlike for instance in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait or the East China Sea, the pressure is different in our region today from what it was before.”
At the same time, the world has economic ties that are quite different from before, and the technological rivalry is different.
“The super-conflict is overarching and ranges from Tik-tok, trade war, the South China Sea to Huawei, climate and human rights. It is more than a regular conflict as they are found in international relations, yet it is not necessarily an armed conflict”, Tunsjø says.
Norway’s room for maneuvering
Tunsjø argues that Norway has different room for maneuvering in this conflict compared to what was the case during the Cold War. However, it is also more difficult to deal with the conflicted co-existence.
“During the Cold War, we were tied in with the western block and NATO. There was not much room for Norway to maneuver in. In the new super-conflict, it will be more difficult for Norway to maneuver between the superpowers, yet the room for maneuvering is entirely different. Norway can for instance sign a free-trade agreement with China”, the researcher points out.
Senior Researcher Henrik Stålhane Hiim at the Norwegian Institute for Foreign Affairs (NUPI) agrees that Norway is wedged between two rivalling superpowes, and that the situation is hard to balance and will not get any easier.
Focus on East Asia
“We are currently in a situation in which things are getting more heated between the USA and China, and the rivalry between them is escalating. In situations like this, both China and the USA focus on convincing third parties to lean their way. One might read Pompeo and Braithwaite in that light, Hiim says.
During a speech prior to the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2019, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo accused China of leading an aggressive policy.
US Marine Minister and former US Ambassador to Norway Kenneth J. Braithwaite referred to a strong Chinese presence off the Norwegian coast during his May 2020 confirmation hearing prior to his appointment.
“The Chinese and Russians are everywhere, especially the Chinese. You would be scared over the extent of Chinese activity off the Norwegian coast in the High North. And we must be alert, we must understand why”, Braithwaite said.
Hiim does not characterize what China does as directly aggressive.
“However, they are more self-assertive and have the resources to assert their interests both militarily and especially economically.”
Nevertheless, the Senior Researchers believes the potential threat China might pose militarily in the Arctic is exaggerated.
“I think Pompeo and Braithwaite’s statements are examples of Americans exaggerating the threat posted by China in some connections. The Arctic is an example of that.”
“I believe the threat China might pose in the Arctic is a very overplayed phenomenon. If one looks at the Chinese military presence in the Arctic, as Braithwaite appeared to refer to, then that actually equals zero. As far as I know, the Chinese marine has never crossed the Arctic Circle.
“There might me some Chinese military presence with time. However, for the foreseeable future, focus will be on its immediate neighborhood, then on Asia, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The Arctic is way down on that list”, Hiim points out.
The USA and China meet out in the maritime domain. They are not facing each other on land in Asia.
Consequences for Norway
In July, the Norwegian Armed Forces announced that the USA’s Marine Corps will develop its exercising in Norway in relation to the re-organizing of the USMC. This means that the USMC will be present only with lighter forces between exercises.
When asked whether the USA’s announcement about withdrawing forces both from Norway and Germany can be seen in relation to the development between China and the USA, Tunsjø answers with an unequivocal yes.
“It says so in black and white in the new US Marine Corps strategy. They look at where the challenges will be in the coming years and the marine corps wants to make itself relevant. That means that it must find new ways of thinking, finding out how to lead war in the coming years, or at least be relevant, in a potential conflict with China.”
“Thus, they move focus away from the land-based domain, which they have been very focused on for the past two decades.”
“In addition, their storages in Norway are not as relevant as before. If they envision a greater chance of being drawn into a conflict in East Asia, they will need storages closer to that geographical area. So China’s emergence thus has a direct consequence for Norwegian defense and security policy”, Tunsjø says in closing.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.