U.S. stuns audience by tongue-lashing China, Russia on eve of Arctic Council ministerial

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks on Arctic policy at the Lappi Areena in Rovaniemi, Finland, Monday May 6, 2019. Pompeo is in Rovaniemi to attend the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via The Associated Press)
ROVANIEMI, Finland – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stunned onlookers Monday by tongue-lashing China and Russia during an Arctic policy speech on the eve of the Arctic Council ministerial.

“China’s words and actions raise doubts about its intentions,” Pompeo said to a packed audience mostly made up of Arctic Council delegates at Rovaniemi’s Lappi Areena.

“Beijing claims to be a near-Arctic state,” Pompeo said refrencing China’s 2018 white paper on the Arctic. “Yet the shortest distance between China and the Arctic is 900 miles. There are Arctic states, and non-Arctic states. No third category exists. China claiming otherwise entitles them to exactly nothing.”

China has been an Arctic Council observer country since 2013 . But its Arctic ambitions garnered worldwide attention last year with its policy document that laid out the country’s plans for massive investments and infrastructure projects in the North, establishing a so-called ‘Polar Silk Road.’

Pompeo said the U.S. welcomes Chinese investment in the Arctic but that the U.S. needed to “examine these activities closely,” citing a U.S. Defense Department report on May 2 that said civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include
deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attack.”

(Watch U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s full speech in Rovaniemi, Finland)

Arctic Council members Russia, Canada also singled out

Pompeo, along with the foreign ministers of the seven other Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia; are gathered in Rovaniemi this week for the eleventh Arctic Council ministerial meeting.

The intergovernmental forum is made up of the eight northern nations and six Arctic Indigenous groups, and its mandate is to discuss sustainable development and environmental protection in the North. The countries meet biennially to transfer the rotating chairmanship and sign a declaration that establishes their priorities for the next two years. On Tuesday, Finland hands the chairmanship to Iceland.

Military and security issues have been explicitly excluded from the Arctic Council since its founding, but Pompeo, after discussing China, also singled out Russia in his speech, citing the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s reopening of military bases in the North, as activity increases along the Northern Sea Route.

“We’re concerned about Russia’s claim over the international waters of the Northern Sea Route, including its newly announced plans to connect it with China’s Maritime Silk Road,” he said.

A view of the Northwest Passage in Arctic Canada on July 22, 2017. Pompeo likened Canada to Russia in a speech on Monday, saying Canada’s claims on the Northwest Passage were “illegitimate”. (The Associated Press)

Pompeo also took a swipe at Ottawa during his speech when discussing the Northwest Passage, a waterway Canada considers internal waters, and that the U.S. considers international waters.

“We recognize Russia is not the only country making illegitimate claims,” he said referring to Canada.

In an emailed statement to Eye on the Arctic after the speech,  Global Affairs Canada stressed Canada’s commitment to “… exercising the full extent of its rights and sovereignty over its territory and its Arctic waters, including the Northwest Passage.”

“Those waterways are part of the internal waters of Canada,” said spokesperson Guillaume Bérubé. “Canada and the US have long disagreed regarding the status of the Northwest Passage, however, we work collaboratively to manage our differing views, including through the 1988 Arctic Cooperation Agreement. We expect that this cooperation will continue.”

Recasting the U.S as a team player?

Pompeo’s comments came at the same time he sought to recast the U.S. as a team player in circumpolar affairs despite weeks of lambasting by a procession of Arctic officials for the country’s stonewalling on climate language in the Arctic Council’s upcoming Rovaniemi Declaration.

In the weeks leading up to the Rovaniemi ministerial, everyone from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, to officials from other Arctic states, have become increasingly vocal concerning U.S. efforts to remove mentions of climate change and the Paris climate agreement from the final declaration expected to be signed on Tuesday.

President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate deal in 2017, a move blasted by other Arctic Council member states and something that continues to be sticking point  in bilateral meetings with Arctic Council nations.

Pompeo didn’t mention climate change in his speech but tried to burnish the U.S.’s environmental bonafides in the Arctic citing its involvement in everything from the signing the 2018 moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean  to its reduction of black carbon emissions by 16 percent since 2013, something Pompeo described as “the best of any Arctic country” done at the same time “it isn’t clear Russia is reducing emissions at all” and that “China’s CO2 emissions tripled between 2000 and 2016.”

Arctic Council delegates stunned by speech
“I feel very bad,” says Gao Feng, China’s special representative for the Arctic and head of the Chinese delegation at the Arctic Council ministerial. “Not only for myself, not only for the Russian Federation, I feel very bad for Rovaniemi. Because people will (associate) this speech with Rovaniemi and Finland.” (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

Gao Feng, China’s special representative for the Arctic and head of the Chinese delegation at the Arctic Council ministerial, said the speech left him floored.

“The business of the  Arctic Council is cooperation, environmental protection, friendly consultation and the sharing and exchange of views. This is completely different now,” he said shaking his head  as he talked to reporters. “And talking to the biggest Arctic Council nation, Russia, like that? I can’t find a good word (in English) to describe it.

Lassi Heininen, Research Director at Finland’s University of Helsinki, said the content and timing of the speech were unheard of at Arctic Council ministerial meetings, where traditionally, no one state or minister tries to “steal the show.”

“What has happened that he has to act so aggressively towards China and Russia?,” Heininen said. “(Because) even when there are turbulence or uncertainties, the Arctic Council says ‘let’s keep this out’ because we have certain common interests, to have some solid ground. Particularly, this is just the day before the ministerial where (typically) all the parties have respected having a good mood and spirit here because of common interests.

“Maybe this is the Trump administration’s way to show their foreign policy? But is there a need for that? What is the need? What are you aiming to gain?

“I hope that this will not open a new kind of use of the Arctic Council, or mis-use of it, for other purposes.”

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from Global Affairs Canada.

Write to Eilis Quinn at Eilis.Quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: What to expect from the 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial, Blog by Heather Exner-Pirot

Finland: Finland’s Senior Arctic Official looks back at two years of Finnish Arctic Council chairmanship, Heather Exner-Pirot

Denmark/Greenland: Controversy over Greenland airports shows China still unwelcome in the Arctic, Blog by Mia Bennett

Iceland: Iceland talks Arctic, Trump’s ditching of climate accord, with U.S. Secretary of State, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norway rearming in Arctic to face new security landscape, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia, China step up talks over Arctic shipping, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Nordic leaders stand united as they sit with Putin in Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: U.S. Navy plans to be more active in the Arctic, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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