US reacts to Chinese and Russian Arctic Activity, Pompeo to attend Arctic Council Meeting

Michael Pompeo arrives at Keflavik Air Base
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo arrives at Keflavik Air Base in Reykjavik, Iceland on February 15, 2019. (Source: Courtesy US Department of State)

The United States continues to elevate its Arctic commitment as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is slated to travel to Finland to attend the Arctic Council meeting in early May. A new Arctic defense strategy will follow by June.

Just weeks after the US Coast Guard secured funding for a new and long-awaited icebreaker and the US Navy announced that it plans to sail multiple vessels through the Arctic Ocean this summer, the announcement that Mr. Pompeo is expected to participate in the ministerial meeting on May 6-7 represents the latest signal for the emergence of the Arctic as an important area of US policy.

A US State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Mr. Pompeo’s travel plans, the news agency Reuters reported. “We want to show that we are committed to being an Arctic nation, an Arctic power. Chinese action has really focused everyone’s minds.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesperson with regard to the US’ new Arctic defense strategy due to be released in June. The strategy will outline how the US “can best defend national interests and support security and stability in the Arctic,” and will focus heavily on China’s expansion into the Arctic.

US reacts to Chinese and Russian Activity

While the impact of climate change on the Arctic has been well-known for at least a decade, it is actually recent Russian and especially Chinese activities in the region that have triggered a response by the US. China released its first comprehensive Arctic policy in 2018.

“A lot of it has to do with the Russians building up their capacity, including the military capacity in the Arctic. The Chinese have been very aggressive in staking out their claim of being an Arctic-associated nation, in part because of the maritime lanes that are so important to them,” explains Jim Townsend, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington DC-based think tank.

This sentiment was reiterated by General Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the US European Command during recent remarks. “Now the Northern Sea Route is open more often, and there is a resource and commercial interest in it. […] This creates competition.” He explained that the US needs to “send a signal that the Arctic is important to us.”

Experts caution to not militarize the region

Despite recent uptick in stronger rhetoric, the Arctic remains a remarkably peaceful region. Experts caution that any US response to emergent Russian and Chinese activity should be measured and avoid militarization in the High North.

“We also have that tradition about not militarizing the Arctic, a region where all of us, including Russia, are getting along and jointly working out problems and coordinating various efforts. We ought to have our eyes wide open that we don’t want to do things to militarize the Arctic,” explains Townsend, fellow at CNAS.

At the same time Russia may have already started walking down the road towards greater militarization, experts warn. The main question remains if Russia is simply resurrecting old installations, or if it is adding new assets and capabilities. “If in fact, as the Nordic countries are saying, we are seeing a militarization of new capacity on the part of Russia, [...] then we have a military issue up there,” concludes Townsend.

Following up words with actions

The next step in formulating a more robust US Arctic strategy will be to follow up words with actions and appropriate the necessary funding. While Pompeo’s participation at the Council’s ministerial meeting would be noteworthy, previous secretaries of state, including John Kerry in 2015 and Hillary Clinton in 2011, attended such meetings.

“When combined with the recent statements by military commanders that they intend to operate more aggressively in the High North, I hope that Pompeo’s visit signals an elevation of the Arctic as an area of concern for US policymakers,” urges Andrew Holland, COO of the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington DC.

How the US approaches the effects of receding sea ice on security in the Arctic is part of a greater debate of how climate change skeptics in the current US administration incorporate the impact of global warming on strategic and security policy decisions.

“I hope that Pompeo does not continue to ignore the national security threats of climate change: there is nowhere more apparent than the Arctic to view those firsthand,” concludes Holland.