Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will deliver a major speech Monday in Finland on the administration’s evolving policy toward territorial disputes in the Arctic amid heightened U.S. concern over expanding Chinese and Russian maritime operations there.
State Department officials are mum on whether Mr. Pompeo intends to directly confront China or Russia in the speech at a multinational conference of the Arctic Council, but suggested during a background call with reporters that the secretary is most concerned about Beijing’s expanding movements in the region.
“China sometimes refers to itself as a near-Arctic state,” a senior State Department official said on the call Thursday. “There’s no such definition in the council’s lexicon.”
The comment came as officials at the Pentagon released a biting new assessment on Chinese military power Thursday, warning that Beijing has set its sights on the North Atlantic and the Arctic Circle with plans to establish a new “Polar Silk Road” through the region in the coming years.
The annual assessment argued that since last year, China has begun moving a number of icebreakers into the Arctic region, while simultaneously creating a number of new, civilian-operated research stations in Norway, Iceland and other critical locations in the high North Atlantic, Pentagon officials said.
Beijing is dispatching a number of next-generation warships to operate in the region’s harsh conditions, as a way to secure those much-needed resources and sea lanes, the officials said, adding that the Chinese icebreaker vessel, the Xuelong, has conducted nine deployments in and around the Arctic Circle as of last September.
The newest class of Chinese icebreaker, the Xuelong-2, is slated to ship out this September. While designated as “research vessels,” both icebreaker variants are built to blast through nearly 5 feet of solid ice.
The U.S. Navy currently has no icebreaker ships able to traverse the frozen waters in the region. The Coast Guard only has six icebreaker ships total, three medium and three heavy Polar Icebreakers.
It remains to be seen what Mr. Pompeo may reveal in terms of new U.S. policy plans during his speech in Finland or whether other member nations of the Arctic Council — China is not a member, but Russia is — might embrace a more robust American posture. Other member nations include Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.
One senior State Department official who spoke on background with reporters described the council as the “premier international forum for building consensus to support peace and cooperation in the Arctic region.”
Increasing Arctic glacier melt caused by a warming climate has made the region more and more penetrable by ships from different nations in recent years, putting it under a new geopolitical spotlight and creating potential friction on the council.
The issue of climate change is seen to be a politically sticky one for U.S. relations with the council at the moment. The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Trump administration faced resistance from other member nations by seeking to remove references to climate change from a council statement on Arctic policy that Mr. Pompeo is expected to endorse in Finland next week — but that U.S. officials had softened their position on the matter in recent days.
The senior State Department official pushed back Thursday when asked whether disagreement on such matters might distract from U.S. efforts to counter Chinese moves in the Arctic.
“No, just the opposite,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “Climate is a complex global issue, and it’s a global challenge all around, and this administration supports a balanced approach that promotes economic growth and improves energy security while protecting the environment. And we talk about that in each forum, and we work with our partners to come to agreement on how we express it.”
Mr. Pompeo’s trip from Sunday through Thursday will also include stops and meetings with leaders in Germany, the United Kingdom and Nuuk, Greenland.
• Carlo Muñoz contributed to this article.
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