UPPSALA, SWEDEN – The Biden administration plans to name an ambassador-at-large for the Arctic amid growing awareness of the region’s potential strategic importance, which China is the latest major power to claim.
It is not clear who the nominee will be, or when the nomination will be made, according to Politico. The nomination will be subject to Senate confirmation.
The The Arctic’s geostrategic importance is growing as global warming makes access to the region’s mineral and energy reserves seem possible, and the development of new shipping lanes likely.
Russia is expand its military presence in the regionand China declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and its intention to establish a “Polar Silk Road” as part of the Belt and Road Initiative in a 2018 white paper.
With its “near-Arctic” status, the white paper says, China has the same rights as Arctic states, “including the right to conduct scientific research, navigate, conduct overflights, fish, lay submarine cables and pipelines, and even explore and exploit natural resources in the Arctic high seas.’
With its northernmost tip located nearly 1,500 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, China lacks any Arctic territory. Eight nations have territory above the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States, with Alaska’s northern reaches.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski had long pushed for the ambassadorship and written in an op-ed for The Hill that “How we deal with the Arctic will shape the global order, so the United States cannot afford a diplomatic vacancy.”
She pointed to the region’s geopolitical importance, saying its “vast reserves of Arctic minerals could help meet soaring global demand” and that Arctic shipping routes “promise to significantly shorten and cheapen global shipping regimes.”
Calling for an Arctic ambassador in his August 4 article, Murkowski wrote: ‘The United States is the only Arctic nation without a dedicated Arctic ambassador or higher. Even some non-Arctic nations have Arctic ambassadors, including China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.’
The new position of Ambassador for the Arctic Region will replace that of US Coordinator for the Arctic Region, a position established January 1, 2020and is now held on a temporary basis by State Department adviser Derek Chollet, who told Politico that the Biden administration sees “this moment as one of strategic opportunity.”
Murkowski has “strongly” recommended that the first Arctic ambassador should “be an Alaskan with deep knowledge of the Arctic region and a holistic understanding of Arctic politics.”
A NATO warning
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic and expressed concern over China’s growing presence in the Arctic last week after his first visit to Canada’s Arctic region.
He noted that China plans to build the world’s largest icebreaker and is invest tens of billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure and research projects in the north.
Stoltenberg continued: ‘Our response is a strong and predictable allied presence in the region. We have already established a new NATO command for the Atlantic.’
He warned that Russia and China are forming a strategic Arctic partnership.
“Beijing and Moscow have also pledged to intensify practical cooperation in the Arctic. This is part of a deepening strategic partnership that challenges our values and interests,” Stoltenberg said.
Be careful with China
Since 2013, China has been an accredited observer to the Arctic Council, a regional organization whose members include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States
In the 2018 White Paper, Beijing states that China is geopolitically close to the Arctic Circle and is “an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs” while describing the Arctic as a “community with a shared future for mankind.”
The US has voiced its suspicions about Chinese designs on the Arctic for years. In May 2019, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Finland, ‘there are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists, and to claim otherwise entitles China to precisely nothing.’
Some Arctic countries are becoming more skeptical of China’s increasing interest in their region as well.
China’s economic influence in the Arctic region, a study released by the Total Defense Research Institute (FOI) in June said that “Nordic nations that previously welcomed Chinese investment with open arms are now wary of the risks of China’s growing influence.”
The report noted that despite Chinese efforts to invest in the Arctic, few deals have been completed.
Oscar Almen, co-author of the report and senior researcher at FOI, said some of these Chinese investment efforts have been put on hold due to security concerns from host states.
“In the case of Greenland, many of these investments have apparently been denied due to intervention. There has been a growing weariness in the Nordics and North America against the intentions of the Chinese, Almen told VOA Mandarin.
The report noted that in 2016 the Danish government intervened when Chinese mining company General Nice Group tried to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland.
Danish politicians did not want to jeopardize their country’s relationship with the United States, Reuters reported, citing sources involved in the decision. The Danish government reached an agreement with the United States in 1951, which gave the latter military rights in Greenland to strengthen the defense of the Arctic and North America.
Another failed Chinese investment initiative came in 2018, when the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration (CAA) tried to buy Finland’s Kemijarvi airport in Lapland. The Finnish Defense Ministry blocked Beijing because the airport was close to a strategic military range, according to local media.
The FOI report states that if China continues with its current level of domestic repression and assertive foreign policy, it will be difficult to win the trust of the Nordic countries.