Trump Administration Plays Catch-Up in Arctic

May 10, 2019 by HJ Mai

The Arctic’s environment is undergoing a dramatic shift, with temperatures in the region heating up faster than anywhere else in the world. An area that has long been considered unforgiving to men and machinery could soon host the next global gold rush.

While it might still be decades until private companies take the plunge and start investing billions in business opportunities above the Arctic Circle, nation states are already drafting Arctic policies related to national security, international cooperation and environmental stewardship.

The Trump administration is currently working on a new Arctic defense strategy and judging by what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his remarks at the Arctic Council meeting in Finland earlier this week, the era of cooperation among Arctic nations could soon become a relic of the past.

“We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region,” Pompeo said on Monday.

Washington’s top diplomat pointed to the Northern Sea Route, which is expected to become increasingly accessible due to the Arctic’s diminishing sea ice, as well as the region’s abundance of natural resources as potential future conflict areas.

“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. Fisheries galore,” he said.

Pompeo also used the opportunity to send a stern warning to Russia and China over their “provocative actions” in the region. “No one denies Russia has significant Arctic interests. […] But Russia is unique. Its actions deserve special attention, in part because of their sheer scale.”

For Amy Lauren Lovecraft, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and expert on Arctic policy, Pompeo’s speech was in line with the Trump administration’s international strategy.

“Pompeo sort of almost calling out Russia, that’s a bit unusual, but I think it’s in line with the Trump administration,” she told The Well News. “I don’t think it signals any real new conflict in the Arctic. I think it’s just this administration catching up to the importance of the Arctic.”

Despite the absence of any imminent military threat in the region, the U.S. said it will boost its military and diplomatic presence in the Arctic, including hosting military exercises, strengthening its force presence, rebuilding its icebreaker fleet and expanding coast guard funding. In addition, it will create a new senior military post for Arctic affairs within the Department of Defense.

When it comes to China, the Pentagon last week warned that Beijing might use its civilian research presence in the Arctic to strengthen its military presence.

“Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic state, yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” the secretary of state added.

The public’s general perception that due to climate change everything in the Arctic is going to warm up at a steady rate puts a spotlight on the region’s geopolitical importance, Lovecraft said. However, the reality is that climate transition actually means more disruption and unpredictability.

“The Arctic has always been a big geopolitical hotspot; it’s just the nature of the interest in it that has changed,” she said.

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