Pompeo Warns of New Geopolitical Contest in the Arctic

The Chinese-funded, Russian-built Yamal LNG terminal in the Russian Arctic (file image)

Published May 6, 2019 8:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, one day ahead of an Arctic Council meeting in Finland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of Russian and Chinese ambitions in the high north, and he suggested that America's Arctic policy should be framed in terms of competition for power and resources.

"This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future," Pompeo said. "The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance. It houses 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources."

Pompeo warned that Russia and China may not proceed benevolently as they pursue their interests in far northern latitudes, and he suggested that China's investment activities could serve as a cover for the expansion of its military presence. 

"Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims? Do we want the fragile Arctic environment exposed to the same ecological devastation caused by China’s fishing fleet in the seas off its coast, or unregulated industrial activity in its own country? I think the answers are pretty clear," he said. 

Pompeo also singled out Russia's decision to regulate marine traffic off its northern coast: Russia now insists that foreign-flagged vessels must receive permission to pass through the region, regardless of innocent passage rights, and requires that they take aboard a Russian pilot. 

Declaration on climate change

The Arctic Council is a scientific coordinating body, and it is currently negotiating the text of the document that will formally summarize its views at this week's meeting. Diplomats involved in the discussion report that America is the only nation out of eight council members opposed to any mention of climate change or any mention of the Paris climate accord in the statement. 

Pompeo did not refer to climate change in his address, though he did make note of the thaw in the high north, saying that "steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade." He suggested that the Council should broaden its focus from science alone and engage with the Arctic as "an arena for power and for competition."