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Lost at the North Pole: Pompeo’s Incoherent Criticism of China’s Arctic Activities

May 20, 2019
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR

On May 6th, the 11th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council — the intergovernmental forum for handling matters of importance to the Arctic region — was held in Rovaniemi, Finland. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo broke with normal practice and delivered a speech before the official meeting entitled “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,” which targeted China and Russia. The speech was not only alarmist but suggested that the Arctic has become an arena for great power competition, thereby agitating the security situation in the region. The speech has been widely questioned and criticized for maliciously discrediting China’s legitimate activities in the Arctic. The speech contained at least three falsehoods or misrepresentations:

First, it distorts the details of China’s claim to be a “near-Arctic state.” Pompeo denied the fact that China is a near-Arctic state and claimed that no third category exists, only Artic States and Non-Arctic States. According to the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, members of the Arctic Council are the eight Arctic States, with observer status open to Non-Arctic States. China’s 2018 Arctic Policy White Paper clearly states the commitments it made when applying to become an Arctic Council observer, while claiming that China is a near-Arctic state. This claim consists of three component: First, geographically, China is one of the continental states that are closest to the Arctic Circle. This is a recent reference to other Non-Arctic States and is a relative standard rather than a concept of absolute distance. Second, China does not want to establish a third kind of status equivalent to Arctic States and Non-Arctic States; furthermore, China has no intention of claiming special rights or interests in the Arctic. What China seeks to do is to subdivide the Non-Arctic States according to geographical location.

This does not violate any international laws or international treaty provisions, nor does it undermine the existing rights of the Arctic States. Third, although China is a Non-Arctic State, the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China. The waterways and resource development of the Arctic are of relevance to China’s economic development. Therefore, compared to some other Non-Arctic States, China pays a lot of attention to Arctic affairs and hopes to use its own capital, technology, and market advantages to play a role in Non-Arctic States’ participation in Arctic development and governance.

Second, it ignores China’s right to participate in Arctic affairs. Pompeo believes that as an Arctic Council observer, respecting the territorial sovereignty of Arctic States is a prerequisite and obligation for China to participate in Arctic activities — but he ignores China’s own rights in the Arctic. China has always participated in Arctic affairs in accordance with the basic principles of respect, cooperation, win-win results, and sustainability. But respect should be reciprocal. China abides by international laws and international treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), respects the sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction enjoyed by the Arctic States, and recognizes that Non-Arctic States do not enjoy territorial sovereignty in the region. However, Arctic States should also respect the rights and freedoms of Non-Arctic States such as China to carry out activities in the region in accordance with international laws and international treaties. In particular, scientific research on the high seas of the Arctic Ocean in accordance with UNCLOS, the right to navigation, overflight, fishing, and the laying of underwater cables and pipelines, and the right to explore and exploit resources in the international seabed area, as well as the liberty to access certain areas of the Arctic near Svalbard in accordance with the Spitsbergen Treaty and the right to engage in research, hunting, fishing, and mining activities. Therefore, China’s right to participate in Arctic affairs is not a gift bestowed by certain Arctic States, but rather is conferred by international laws and international treaties. No country should — and no country can — close the door on Arctic cooperation to shut out China.

Third, Pompeo claimed that China has strengthened its security presence and military influence in the Arctic through infrastructure construction and scientific research activities, and even smeared the Belt and Road project as a source of regional unrest. In fact, with the warming of the climate and accelerated ice melt, the prospects for the development and utilization of Arctic resources and waterways are of great concern to countries inside and outside the region. In recent years, China has been praised by many countries in the Arctic for actively promoting international cooperation on Arctic research under the Belt and Road Initiative and working with all parties in its proposal to build a “Polar Silk Road” through infrastructure development in the region. Chinese enterprises and scientific research institutions, in partnership with counterparts from Russia and elsewhere, have carried out a series of cooperative projects, including polar science research, offshore oil and gas development, and Arctic waterways transportation. For example, Finland and Norway both invited China to participate in infrastructure construction via the Arctic Corridor project, while the China-Russia Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) and Arctic LNG-2 projects were put into operation six months ahead of schedule. Experience has shown that China is not a troublemaker in the Arctic but rather an opportunity creator. China’s participation in the Arctic is not uninvited and China has come with good intentions. We are all in the same boat, have common interests, and we bring out the best in each other in this changing and vital region of the world.

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