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Foreign Policy

Behind Blinken’s Statements on the Arctic

Jun 10, 2021
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR


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In mid-May, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Denmark and Iceland. He also attended the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavik to promote the adoption of the 2021 Arctic Council Joint Declaration and Strategic Plan (2021–30) by the Arctic countries. The eight Arctic foreign ministers reached consensus on a series of issues such as Arctic environmental protection, sustainable economic and social development and strengthening Arctic Council mechanisms.

However, the harmony on the surface cannot cover the rivalry in the bones. During his visit and participation in the meeting, Blinken constantly exaggerated Russia’s threat to peace and stability in the Arctic region and demanded that it comply with international law and regional rules.

From Blinken’s statements, it would appear that the U.S.-Russia conflict over Arctic security centers on three points.

First, the U.S. is exaggerating the Russian military threat while strengthening the military deployment of its allies, showing the “American double standard” to its fullest. During his visit to Iceland and Denmark, Blinken repeatedly accused Russia of militarizing the Arctic and raising regional security risks, which he said could lead to accidents and miscalculations. He repeated his concept of the Arctic as a conflict-free zone.

In addition, he made a special visit to two important U.S. military bases in Keflavik, Iceland, and Thule, Greenland, to show his firm determination to promote the return of U.S. military forces to the region. In person, he praised Denmark’s decision to allocate funds to strengthen the defense of the North Atlantic and the Arctic.

Second, the “U.S. position” on the Arctic shipping lane rules was mentioned again. This time, Blinken accused Russia of making illegal maritime claims in the Arctic, calling Russia’s Northern Sea Route rules “contrary to international law.” He said the U.S. would urge all countries, including Russia, to proceed “based on the rules, based on the norms, based on the commitments that they had each made.”

You can see it coming: The United States is about to make obstruction of freedom of navigation Russia’s second-biggest crime after allegedly promoting militarization.

Third, Blinken rejected Russia’s proposal to reform the Arctic Council and insisted on the “American approach” to the direction of the regional governance mechanism. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed to extend the Arctic Council partnership to the military/security sphere in order to de-escalate the situation in the region, to prioritize the resumption of the mechanism of regular meetings of the chiefs of the general staffs of the Arctic states during the Russian chairmanship and to organize meetings of military experts.

But Blinken directly rejected the Russian proposal, saying the Ottawa Declaration stipulates that the Arctic Council does not deal with military security issues and that it should continue to focus on peaceful cooperation on environmental protection, maritime security and the well-being of indigenous inhabitants. He reiterated that combating climate change is a priority issue.

Behind the disagreements among Arctic countries on regional security issues is the usual tactic of the United States: Exploit the concerns and conflicts of all parties to strengthen its dominant position. Blinken’s remarks also give a hint about the Biden administration’s core views and future trends in dealing with Arctic security issues.

First of all, climate change will lead to regional cooperation. The choice of security issues or climate change issues as the priority of the Arctic Council is in fact a reflection of the struggle between the U.S. and Russia over the direction and dominance of Arctic governance.

The Biden administration intends to use the issue of climate change to win the largest possible number of votes from the Arctic states on regional governance issues and then elevate the status of the Arctic Council in the regional governance system. By working to clarify the institutional structure and deliberative mechanism, it is trying to realize its strategic intent of giving Arctic states shared responsibility for the region and engaging in closed-door governance.

As Blinken said, the Biden administration has redirected its attention to the environment and renewed its commitment and efforts to take practical action to address issues. He then proposed opening up the Arctic Ocean to certain standards from the perspective of environmental protection and climate change. The entire policy logic is based on the idea that the U.S. should take the lead in setting and monitoring the implementation of these standards and that non-Arctic states, such as China, must abide by the rules and commitments they have made to participate in Arctic activities.

Second, the issue of militarization of the Arctic is used to define the American and Russian camps. The U.S. is trying to use the Russian military threat as a justification or rational basis for accelerating the return of U.S. naval and air forces to the Arctic and deepening alliances with Norway, Denmark, Iceland and other Nordic Arctic countries. During his visit to Denmark, Blinken explicitly stated that “President Biden is at heart an Atlanticist,” alluding to the strengthening of military, political and economic unity and cooperation between North American and Western European countries after World War II. His goal is to jointly confront the Soviet threat.

And then Blinken moved on to explain the Biden administration’s political support and security commitment to its Arctic allies and partners based on the NATO mechanism to jointly counter Russia’s supposed military expansion. In addition, the U.S. also seems intent on taking advantage of the current Arctic security dilemma triggered by the dependence of small Arctic countries on the U.S. and Russia’s demand for dialogue with the U.S. to consolidate its leadership and voice in regional governance issues.

Finally, maritime action is being taken to establish regional rules. The Biden administration’s catchphrase is “rules-based international order.” This time, Blinken is pointing the finger directly at Russia’s rules governing the Northern Sea Route, with the intent of suppressing Russia’s rapid development momentum in the Arctic in recent years.

It is worth noting that President Joe Biden was speaking at the same time at the United States Coast Guard Academy, asking the sailors to step up to what he called their important role in developing a code of conduct to keep the sea lanes open and secure in the Arctic and South China Sea. In light of this, U.S. replication of the mature pattern of maritime operations in the South China Sea by sending Coast Guard icebreakers and other ships to stage freedom of navigation operations in the Northern Sea Route cannot be ruled out. There is still a risk that the conflict between the U.S. and Russia in the Arctic Ocean will further intensify.

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