Arctic emerges as major area of conflict between Washington, Beijing

Published 08.05.2019 00:12

Following the deepening crisis between the U.S. and China, Arctic territories could possibly become a new area of conflict in the already deteriorating relationship. China yesterday hit back at U.S. criticism of its Arctic presence, saying Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had misrepresented facts about its intentions in the resource-rich region. Pompeo said ahead of a meeting of the eight members of the Arctic Council in Finland on Monday that the U.S. planned to beef up its presence in the region to keep Russia and China's "aggressive behavior" there in check.

Pompeo's remarks were "a misrepresentation of the facts that has ulterior motives," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular press briefing. "We have no geopolitical calculations and seek no exclusionary blocs," he said.

Geng said China has participated in Arctic affairs with "an open, cooperative and win-win attitude." China will "not intervene" in matters between Arctic countries, but it will also "not be absent" from global issues on the Arctic, he said.

China is among 13 non-Arctic states

with observer status in the Arctic Council, and Washington has been wary of Beijing's attempts to style itself as a "near Arctic state."

The Arctic Council is composed of eight member countries with arctic territory: Russia, Canada, the U.S, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. Agreements between countries are non-binding. The council aims to assess the threats of climate change and its effects on living conditions in the region around the North Pole and new opportunities to open ocean trade routes and offshore oil fields. Foreign ministers from the eight-nation Arctic Council, including Russia and the U.S., met Tuesday in northern Finland. The gathering in the city of Rovaniemi, near the Arctic Circle, concludes Finland's two-year term as chair of the council and the handover to Iceland.

The Arctic is very rich in mineral resources and is an area of land and sea that is mostly covered in ice. Its area covers 20 to 30 million square kilometers and is believed to hold 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and one-seventh of its untapped oil reserves.

Beijing has invested massively in the region, spending almost $90 billion between 2012 and 2017, according to Pompeo, and intends to fully benefit from the advantages of the Northern Sea Route. The shipping channel, which drastically cuts sailing times between the Pacific and Atlantic by passing north of Russia, is increasingly usable as the ice melts. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

During the two days of meetings held in the northern Finnish city of Rovaniemi, the U.S. refused to sign an agreement on challenges due to discrepancies over climate change wording, diplomats said yesterday, jeopardizing cooperation in the polar region at the sharp edge of global warming. For the Donald Trump administration, disappearing sea ice in the world's "high north" appears to be first and foremost an economic opportunity to exploit rather than a crisis to mitigate.

It was the first time a declaration had been cancelled since the Arctic Council was formed in 1996.

"Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new naval passageways and new opportunities for trade, potentially slashing the time it takes for ships to travel between Asia and the West by 20 days," Pompeo said in a speech Monday, which was met with polite but muted applause. "Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century's Suez and Panama Canals."

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