China tops agenda as military leaders from 11 nations mull Arctic security
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 6, 2019
STUTTGART, Germany — China’s Arctic ambitions are expected to dominate the discussion later this week when U.S. military leaders convene with partners for security talks in Greenland, an economically vulnerable land where China is working to gain a foothold.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo set the stage for the Greenland meeting when he warned China and Russia on Monday that the U.S. will not tolerate any unilateral or aggressive moves in the Arctic region.
China’s “economic charm offensive” in the high North and beyond is underway in Europe with investments in a network of ports and mines, as it lays groundwork that could pose a long-term threat, U.S. military officials say.
“China is not a military threat to Europe right now, but if we are not careful about how we look at where and how they are investing, they become a very significant national security threat in the future that we may not be able to combat,” a U.S. European Command official said on condition of anonymity, ahead of the security talks in Greenland.
On Wednesday, U.S. military officials and those from 10 other countries that make up the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable will meet in Greenland for two days. “One of our main topics this year is China’s influence in the Arctic,” the EUCOM official said.
The focus is the latest sign of how security strategy in Europe is increasingly about more than Russia. In recent months, the U.S. has intensified pressure on allies in Europe to avoid China’s Huawei 5G telecom infrastructure, which American officials say poses a threat and would force Washington to cease certain information sharing.
China’s economic expansion
For Washington, the concern is that China’s push could, over time, turn into leverage against U.S. military interests.
“They can get into and influence national security in a way that doesn’t appear threatening,” the EUCOM official said. “They are offering obviously economic means for infrastructure — it is expensive to build in the Arctic.”
Greenland, home to the U.S.’s Thule Air Force Base, is an autonomous country, but Denmark controls its defense and foreign policy. That hasn’t stopped Beijing from making economic inroads. For example, China has bought rights to long out-of-use mines in the country.
“Greenland is a place that we have a pretty strong eye on,” the EUCOM official said. “Why is China buying a mine that hasn’t been productive in 30 years. What is the point in China purchasing that mine?”
Last year, Beijing also had its eyes on an airport expansion project in Greenland, a move that was eventually blocked by Copenhagen because of security concerns.
“This gives us great pause,” EUCOM’s Gen. Tod Wolters said in April regarding China’s maneuvering in Greenland.
While Russia’s Arctic ambitions have long been the main area of concern among the U.S. and its allies, there are signs that China’s economic heft could pose a long-term challenge. Even though it doesn’t border the Arctic, China’s recent military white paper outlined how Beijing sees itself as an Arctic player with ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road.”
The term is a reference not only to the ancient trade route connecting the Far East to Europe and Africa, but to China’s modern Belt and Road Initiative, a key element of Beijing’s foreign policy aimed at building infrastructure — and influence — in dozens of countries around the world.
China’s interest in the Arctic comes as polar ice in the region melts, potentially opening new shipping lanes for merchants in the years ahead and increasing access to natural resources.
China says it has “rights in respect of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines in the high seas and other relevant sea areas in the Arctic Ocean.” It also has “rights to resource exploration and exploitation,” China’s 2018 Arctic policy states.
The military roundtable in Greenland this week coincides with a meeting in Finland on Tuesday of the Arctic Council, a government forum of eight Arctic nations: the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.
Speaking ahead of the meeting in Finland, Pompeo criticized both China and Russia for what he said were coercive practices that could destabilize the “high North,” The Associated Press reported.
“China’s pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic,” he said, noting its increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. “Do we want the Arctic Ocean to transform into a new South China Sea, fraught with militarization and competing territorial claims?”
During talks in Finland, the U.S. should “raise awareness of China’s questionable ambitions,” The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with influence in the Trump administration, said in a report ahead of the Arctic talks.
While the Arctic Council is mainly focused on economic matters, China’s description of itself as a “near-Arctic state” deserves high-level attention, the report said.
“The U.S. should work with like-minded partners in the Arctic Council to raise legitimate concerns about China’s so-called Polar Silk Road ambitions,” The Heritage Foundation report said. “The U.S. should also make sure that China does not try to exceed what is allowed of it by its status as an observer in the Arctic Council.”
EUCOM officials declined to detail all of China’s holdings in Europe, but Beijing has a stake in at least 15 ports, which handle the flow of more than 10% of the Continent’s shipping container traffic, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The acquisitions are part of a worldwide infrastructure push to connect Beijing to global markets.
The kind of moves EUCOM worries about in the Arctic have already happened in southern Europe. In 2010, China began buying stakes in the Greek port of Piraeus and now has full control of the strategic Mediterranean port. About 20 million passengers now pass through Piraeus each year, making it “the fastest-growing port in the world,” according to PortsEurope, a trade publication that examines industry developments.
“If we want to pull a ship, a warship, into Piraeus, China can say no,” the EUCOM official said.