Pompeo to Arctic Council: Easy days are over

Drift ice camp in the middle of the Arctic Ocean as seen from the deck of icebreaker XueLong, July 2010. Photo: Timo Palo via Wikimedia Commons.

The countries of the Arctic Council have for years rejoiced that their region is a zone of peace and cooperation. But in a speech in Finland Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a harder edge. He said the days when the Arctic Council could concentrate almost entirely on environmental research and culture are over.

“The region has become an arena for power and for competition,” Pompeo said Monday, before a Council meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland. “And the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future.”

Pompeo focused on China as a threat. China wants to add a polar maritime route to its Belt and Road global transportation initiative. It has a research vessel plying the Arctic ocean, and it’s about to launch its second icebreaker. The Pentagon says Beijing could use its civilian presence to improve its military foothold and may deploy submarines in the North. Pompeo warns China may treat the Arctic with the aggression it has shown elsewhere.

“Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?” he asked. “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?”

Pompeo said the U.S. is concerned about Russia, too. He said Moscow “illegally” demands that foreign ships seek permission to pass through the Northern Sea Route, and insists each ship carry a Russian maritime pilot.

Pompeo did not utter the words “climate change” – an issue that was a huge Arctic priority for the Obama administration. But Pompeo did say the U.S. has reduced its carbon emissions while China and Russia have not.

Government data show U.S. carbon emissions have dropped, due in large part to the shift from coal to natural gas. But per-capita emissions in the United States remain among the highest in the world.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is in Finland for the Arctic Council meeting. By week’s end, she’s expected at another Arctic conference, held this year in Shanghai.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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