A week after the conclusion of a joint U.S. and British Royal Navy exercise in the Barents Sea U.S. State Department officials renewed warnings over China and Russia increasingly trying to challenge the interests of the U.S. and its western allies in the region.
During a special briefing on the U.S.’ Arctic interests representatives cautioned against national security implications of Chinese investments in the region.
“You need to have in place mechanisms that screen and scrutinize these [Arctic] investment deals and that take a look at them through the national security prism,” explained Michael J. Murphy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European And Eurasian Affairs.
The briefing also highlighted that China may be seeking to take advantage of the Covid-19 situation. While officials would not name specific examples of events above the Arctic Circle or in Norway, they nonetheless warned that, “whether it’s Norway or Sweden or Finland or Canada or Iceland, all of those countries are experiencing the same things we are experiencing with regards to disinformation and with regards to Chinese efforts to obfuscate about the current pandemic, its origins.”
This past weekend Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the U.S. of attacking and slandering China over the Coronavirus and pushing the two nations to the bring of a new Cold War.
Exercise and Outspoken Military
These new remarks follow on the heels of a week-long naval exercise earlier this month during which three U.S. destroyers – the USS Donald Cook, USS Porter, and USS Roosevelt – and Royal Navy frigate HMS Kent operated in the Barents Sea to “assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies.” It was the first such exercise since the mid-1980s.
Over the past few years U.S. military leadership has been very vocal regarding its concerns about Russian and Chinese activities in the Arctic. New voices were added to the discourse this month.
During his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Navy in front of the U.S. Armed Services Committee former Ambassador to Norway Kenneth J. Braithwaite spoke extensively about security issues in the Arctic and particularly how they relate to Norway. The region took a front seat during his confirmation hearing, with the Arctic mentioned 34 times.
They are up there and trying to, again, win over the people of northern Norway.
“The Chinese and the Russians are everywhere, especially the Chinese. You would be alarmed at the amount of Chinese activity off the coast of Norway in the High North. And we need to be vigilant to that. We need to understand why,” explained Braithwaite.
“Russia’s hope is to be relevant again on the world stage, where we all believe or all come to understand that China wants to be dominant on that same world stage. And they have really pressed hard upon Norway to be part of that calculus.”
The Secretary continued to highlight why China is particularly cognizant of Norway’s vital role in the region and the importance of Kirkenes as China begins to ship more goods across the Arctic,
“China now recognizes the importance of Kirkenes, securing a western terminus on the Northern Sea Route, and they are up there and trying to, again, win over the people of northern Norway.”
Armed Russian Icebreakers
Also this month, during a speech at the U.S. Naval Institute, Admiral James G. Foggo III, the Commander of the United States Naval Forces Europe and Africa, warned that Russia’s activities in the Arctic should grab everyone’s attention. Russia has “taken an aggressive approach in the Arctic.”
Who puts missiles on icebreakers?
He highlighted Russia’s latest icebreaker part of its Northern Fleet, the Ivan Papanin, which is designed to carry Kalibr cruise missiles. “Who puts missiles on icebreakers?” the Admiral asked. Customarily icebreakers are only armed with light weaponry. The vessel resembles Norway’s Svalbard class, but is more heavily armed.
The Admiral also confirmed the importance of the Arctic region to the U.S. naval forces. “Our operations with the U.K. [last week] demonstrate the strength, flexibility, and commitment of the NATO Alliance to freedom of navigation throughout the Arctic and all European waters.”
Similar concerns were reiterated during the State Department briefing last week by Mr Murphy. He highlighted that Russia has created a new Arctic command and brigades, refurbished and built new bases and airfields and stationed modern missile defense systems in the region. “This goes beyond territorial defense. It’s designed in part to project power into the North Atlantic in order to prevent the United States and Canada from responding and reinforcing in the event of a crisis.”
Russia Rebukes Growing NATO Activity in Arctic
Russian officials in turn responded to last week’s U.S. State Department Briefing pointing to the growing NATO activity in the region.
The Arctic zone is a zone of our national interests.
“I want to note that this statement by the United States is an attempt to find an excuse to expand the military assets in the Arctic by NATO which we can already observe,” stated chairman of the State Duma committee on defense Yuri Shvytkin. According to Russian officials NATO training activities have increased by 17 percent in the past three years with reconnaissance activities up 15 percent.
Similar concerns were voiced earlier this year by Russia’s envoy to the Arctic Council, Nikolai Korchunov: "Of course, we are alarmed by the increasing activity of NATO in the Arctic. We are facing a new phenomenon, where non-Arctic countries in NATO adopt military Arctic strategies or strategic documents to justify the presence of their militaries in the Polar region. This undermines efforts to preserve the Arctic region as a zone of peace, stability and constructive cooperation.”