Arctic an area of low tensions – USA

The United States wants to keep the Arctic an area of low tensions, Washington’s newly appointed Arctic coordinator said Wednesday even as he warned of growing big power rivalry in the region due to climate change and conflicting geopolitical interests.

Speaking to reporters via teleconference call barely a week after his appointment, James DeHart, struck an unusually cooperative tone even as he portended that years from now the summer of 2020 will be seen as a pivotal moment in the U.S. Arctic policy.

“Our objectives for the region are that it be peaceful and an area of low tension, and that there be close cooperation among the nations of the Arctic,” DeHart said in his opening remarks.

“We want to see economic growth and development in a way that is supportive of local communities, including the Indigenous communities of the region, and in a way that is environmentally sustainable, that respects principles of good governance and transparency.”

DeHart’s tone was in sharp contrast to the more assertive and at times almost belligerent tone of his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stunned observers during an Arctic policy speech in Finland last year by tongue-lashing China and Russia and their policies in the Arctic.

Below is a full rush transcript of the Briefing with  James P. DeHart,  U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region,  Office of the U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region

Mr. DeHart:  Let me start – I’ll just offer a few comments at the top here, and then happy to go to your questions.  

But let me just start by making a prediction, which is that in a few years people will look back at this summer and see it as an important pivot point, a turning point, with a more sustained and enduring attention by the United States to the Arctic region.  And I think if you look at what’s happening in our system over the last couple of months, you’ll see that we are launching a comprehensive and an integrated diplomatic approach and engagement in the Arctic region.

So I would point not to my own position really but to some different events taking place in our system.  And so if you look at the memorandum that was issued by our White House back on June 9 that has set in motion the development of a fleet of Arctic icebreakers and has put in motion development of this fleet by 2029 – really important developments.  We have the opening now of our consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, which is really significant, I think, when you look at finite resources that we have for our diplomatic platforms around the world, and so we’re very happy to have that open.

Secretary Pompeo just under two weeks ago visited Denmark, a very close ally of the United States.  And although the agenda there was broader than the Arctic, the Arctic was an important part of those discussions.  And also, I think very significantly, they had a quadrilateral meeting there which included the ministers of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, reflective of our increased engagement with Greenland and the Faroe Islands.  

And then looking around our system, there’s a lot of things happening outside the State Department as well.  The U.S. Air Force has a new Arctic strategy, for example.  So a lot of attention now to the Arctic region that I think is here to stay, and you’re going to see a sustained and enduring approach.  And let me tell you why I think that’s the case.  

First, we’ve seen and we are seeing really pretty dramatic environmental changes throughout the region and changes that create a lot of difficulties for local communities in the region, and—but—that also make the Arctic more accessible and open up new possibilities for resource extraction, sea bed mining, tourism, transit routes, and so forth.  So it’s a pretty rapidly changing situation from a physical and environmental standpoint.

And then the second factor I would point to is the geopolitical changes that are taking place.  And Russia, an Arctic nation which is increasing its activities and its security presence in the Arctic, and China, which is not an Arctic nation but has a clear interest and has shown its interest in investment and other commercial activities, and when you look at the way China has approached investment and commercial activities in other parts of the world, I think we have to be very cautious and guarded in terms of what this could mean for the very high standards of governance that we all want to see in the Arctic region.

So our objectives for the region are that it be peaceful and an area of low tension that there – and that there be close cooperation among the nations of the Arctic.  We want to see economic growth and development and in a way that is supportive of local communities, including the indigenous communities of the region, and in a way that is environmentally sustainable, that respects principles of good governance and transparency.

And we want to see the Arctic as a rules-based order and so that people are operating according to high standards and norms.  And this is something that has been a feature of the most important Arctic forum, which is the Arctic Council, which we are proud to be members of.

So let me stop there, but with just a final word about our approach here is we’re determined to work with our partners throughout the region, and that includes not only the governments in the Arctic but also the local communities, indigenous communities, the state of Alaska, which after all is our part of the Arctic, Alaska’s representatives in the Congress, and state officials, other communities there, and then that giant web of networks that exists among the scientists and educators and policy specialists who are working in the Arctic.  

So it’s a region where I think it’s really possible and important to work both at the national level and then at the subnational level with a variety of players, and that’s what we will do.

Question: Does the U.S. see a danger in increasing cooperation between Russia and China in the Arctic?  And then second, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Russia’s military presence in the Arctic, and how does the U.S. assess the threat of the Russian military presence there?

Mr. DeHart:  I think on Russia-China cooperation we’ve seen some recent indications of cooperation.  It’s early days for me yet in this position, so I need to learn more.  My early impressions are that – is that the cooperation takes place at more of a tactical level than strategic, because these are two countries that do have some different interests there, Russia being an Arctic nation and I think protective of its status as an Arctic nation, and China seeking to play a bigger role.  But being the closest part of China to the Arctic is about 900 miles away, they’re not part of the Arctic, and I’m not sure that Russia necessarily wants to embrace a comprehensive Chinese role in the Arctic.  So I see some differences, I guess, in their

respective interests that could pose some constraints on their cooperation in the long term.

As for Russia’s military presence, look, they are present in the Arctic.  They’ve got some important assets on the Kola Peninsula and elsewhere.  They’ve increased their activities with refurbished bases and some new forces in the region and more complex exercises.  We have to be aware of that, and we want this to be a region of peaceful cooperation in the realm of science and search-and-rescue and education, but we recognize also that the Arctic is NATO’s northern flank, and so we look at the region through that lens as well.

Question:  Denmark promised to strengthen and to build up – the surveillance and the military presence in Greenland from 2023 and would spend around $250 million USD.  What do you think about that?  Is it enough?  Or what do you think that the Danish government should prioritize?  What do we need to do, first of all?

And then secondly, I have a more specific question about the Denmark Strait, the strait between Greenland and Iceland.  Literally, there is almost no surveillance there, so you could have U-boats sailing by without noticing.  Denmark has promised to build up some sonar in 2027.  Is that good enough for you?  And what do you think about the whole situation that a U-boat could sail by without being seen?  Can you, as Americans, do something to build that surveillance here as well if the Danish government would like to do that? 

Mr. DeHart:  Right, okay.  So I think I’ll have to be very general in my response, and as most of that I think would have to be addressed by DOD colleagues.  I mean, I would make the observation, obviously, that from a security perspective the domain awareness, including in Greenland, is really – is very important to us and one of the factors we have to look at in – throughout the Arctic.  

Whether current efforts including the cooperation that we have with Denmark are sufficient or need to be strengthened, I couldn’t really – I couldn’t really respond at that level of specificity but would defer to my DOD colleagues.  Denmark is a very close ally in NATO, and so I am confident that we have that close cooperation to meet the needs, whatever they are.

On the Greenland-UK-Iceland gap, I mean, when we look at the region from a security perspective, the Arctic is inextricably linked to the North Atlantic and to the requirements of defense of Europe, and so it comes into play when we look at the lines of communication and the requirements for reinforcement in the event of a contingency.  And so that – so that’s part of our thinking there and why the Arctic is also important from a security perspective.  But I think we will meet the requirements together with our allies.

Question:  I have a question about U.S. relations with Canada as it relates to the Arctic.  U.S. and Canada have a very interesting relationship in the Arctic.  We also have a dispute in the Beaufort Sea over the maritime boundary there.  How do you see the U.S. relationship with Canada?  And are there any specific asks that you would have of Canada, and on – just adding on the question of my Danish colleague, in terms of the domain awareness that you mentioned, NORAD and upgrading or modernizing NORAD capabilities in the Canadian Arctic?

Mr. DeHart:  Well, so look, we have such a broad and good relationship with Canada over so many different areas, and the Arctic is one of those.  Part of my background and learning experience was three years in Norway, and so I need to – one of my priorities here is to make sure that I’m fully understanding the Canadian perspective on the Arctic early in my tenure here, although I did have some very close collaboration with my Canadian colleague in Oslo, I’m happy to say, including on Arctic issues, when I was there.

But look, Canada has immense interest in the Arctic given its geography.  I don’t have any specific asks of Canada at this time in relation to the Arctic, but I do have a real interest in meeting early with my Canadian counterparts and also – and getting to Canada and also to meeting the local communities, who I think are key to this question.  I hope that gets at your question. 

Question:  I just wondered – you spoke of climate change as though it was an advantage in the sense that it was opening things up in the Arctic.  Is it also a disadvantage in some ways, and if so, how, for the U.S. and its interests in particular?  And if that is the case, is your diplomacy, U.S. diplomacy on this, not slightly undermined or crippled, even, by your government’s scorning of the science of climate change, and indeed the way it’s been treating some of its allies in Europe, some of them Arctic states?  How do you – how do you sort of frame the whole question of climate change in your Arctic policy?  

Mr. DeHart:  That’s certainly not an impression that I am intending to give.  So the environmental changes that are taking place across the Arctic, including in Alaska, are – have profound negative impacts on many communities.  So – and we’ve seen this come to light recently – the wildfires across Siberia, the detrimental impact on infrastructure with the thawing of the permafrost, the – that’s given rise to some major pollution incidents, and comes at enormous human and economic cost. 

At the same time, we have to recognize the reality, too, is that in certain areas, it also provides accessibility that business can take advantage of and so forth.  And it changes – it changes the landscape in a variety of ways, and it invites different countries into the region and invites their interests.  So it’s a complex – it’s a complex picture.  

So climate change is not caused by anything in the Arctic, but it is evidenced in the Arctic, and the changes that have taken place in the Arctic are more dramatic than most other parts of the world.  So it is a set of impacts that is imported into the Arctic, and we see the effects there.  

My focus in this job is really to look at strengthening the cooperation that takes place among Arctic nations to try to mitigate and address these impacts; first off, really, to understand through science what is taking place in the Arctic so that we can have a shared understanding of the impact and that we can look together in a cooperative way at measures that can be taken to support local communities as they adjust. 

So I think – and that’s something that we’re doing actively through the Arctic Council together with the other members, and that is an effort that we can be 100 percent committed to. 

Question:  I was wondering if you could expand a little bit more on – obviously, there’s a push to create and build more icebreakers by the U.S.  If you could – I was wondering if you could expand a little bit more about kind of how you see them being envisioned in the future as well.  I mean, obviously Russia uses them for a whole array of uses here and in their far north, both military and economic.  I’d be curious if you could just expand a little bit more on the strategy behind that directive ?

Mr. DeHart:  Yeah, thanks.  So essentially, there is recognition in our system that our current icebreakers, the Polar Star and the Healy, are not sufficient for the missions that we’d like to carry out in the long term.  And so fundamentally – well, first of all, it’s a fleet that will be developed both for the Arctic and Antarctica.  I am focused on the Arctic, but the fleet is slightly broader.  

We want to make sure that we have the capability to operate as we need to in the American Arctic.  The current capacity that we have is aging, and so we need more for the long term.  And I think we want to make – we want to have a fleet that’s available for security missions; to support search-and-rescue; to support, as appropriate, economic activities; and science and research as well.  

So I think those priorities will be – will evolve in due course, as it will take some time to develop the fleet.  But I think this is – I think this is a multitasking sort of role that we envision, and a lot of the activities that this fleet will help us undertake are within the current goals of the Arctic Council as well and will support that cooperation that takes place in the context of the Arctic Council. 

Question:  I was just wondering how your work actually fits into the NATO Reflection Group, so how the Arctic fits into what NATO is preparing, I guess, its report about, and including NATO’s new focus on China ?

Mr. DeHart:  Right.  Well, I’m closely linked up with colleagues in the building, of course, who see the Arctic through the NATO lens and are managing the relationship there.  As I mentioned, we do see the Arctic region as inextricably linked to the North Atlantic and all of the requirements there, and so those discussions will take place at NATO to, I think, further elaborate where the alliance needs to be on all those things. 

Question: Do you have any closing words you’d like to offer? 

Mr. DeHart:  I appreciate it.  But I think I’d just go back, I guess, to where I began, which is what we’re going to see here is a sustained effort.  I mean, this is a region that’s important to our interests.  It’s important to all of the nations of the Arctic.  So this is not a moment in time, I think, but you will look back on this summer as really the start of something enduring, because the challenges of the region really demand it. 

And so, a peaceful Arctic where local communities are supported, strong cooperation among Arctic states, and strong adherence to the rules and to high standards in the region, good governance and transparency – these are the tracks that our policy will follow.  So I’m very much looking forward to pursuing this, and I thank you very much for joining today.