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International relations

US rejects China's 'near-Arctic state' claim in new cold war

Washington to open consulate in Greenland and give economic aid

Greenland's flag flutters on a tourist boat: China has expressed interest in the Arctic's natural resources.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The U.S. is extending $12.1 million in economic aid to Greenland and setting up a consulate in the Danish territory this summer, looking to counter the growing presence of China and Russia in the Arctic.

The package, revealed by the State Department this week, comes as a response to Russia's military buildup in the region and China's investment in the Arctic's natural resources and shipping routes.

Washington is "in the process of adjusting our Arctic policy," a senior State Department official told reporters on a briefing call. "And it's a change that's driven by the desire of Russia and the People's Republic of China to challenge the United States and the West."

The Arctic has traditionally been governed by an eight-nation governing body called the Arctic Council.

Those eight Arctic states -- Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. -- each have sovereignty over the lands within the Arctic Circle and have had the lone deciding power over policies that govern the polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth.

In January 2018, China issued its first ever Arctic white paper titled "China's Arctic Policy," in which it claimed that Arctic issues now go "beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature," saying that what happens in the region has "a vital bearing on the interests of states outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole."

It said the melting of ice and snow there opens up sea passages and allows new access to natural resources, thus elevating the strategic and economic values of the region.

It called itself geographically a "near-Arctic state," that was "an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs."

The U.S. official who briefed reporters dismissed this claim categorically. "There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states," the official said. "No third category exists, so we do not accept Beijing's claims to be a near-Arctic state."

The official described China's intention to play a more active role in Arctic governance as "disconcerting," citing Beijing's expansionist behavior in the South China Sea.

China has tried to "wiggle their way into Greenland in unhelpful ways by acquiring critical infrastructure that would be problematic for the United States and our NATO allies and, of course, the Kingdom of Denmark," the official asserted.

U.S. President Donald Trump last year expressed interest in the idea of buying the autonomous Danish territory, a notion dismissed by Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen as "absurd."

Though the financial package was embraced as good news by Greenland's leader and the Danish foreign minister, the American effort to build an alliance with the territory also has sparked an outcry in Denmark, with members of its parliament calling the financial aid "reprehensible" and saying the move "crossed the line."

Responding to such criticisms Thursday, the State Department official said, "I'm not sure what everyone is all worked up about or why people are upset."

Last year, the U.S. urged the Faroe Islands -- another Danish territory -- not to use equipment from China's Huawei Technologies in its 5G network.

Danish newspaper Berlingske reported that China's ambassador to Denmark offered to broker a free trade agreement with the Faroe Islands if Huawei won the 5G network assignment. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson denied that Beijing has applied any pressure on the territory.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence warned Icelanders about Huawei on his visit to the Nordic country last year. Iceland was the first European nation to sign a free trade agreement with Beijing, which went into effect in 2014.

"[T]here's no question that China is becoming more active in the Arctic region, both economically and strategically," Pence said at a press gaggle in Reykjavik last fall. "So now is the time for us to strengthen our alliance, to strengthen our cooperation for security and [reject] the Belt and Road Initiative, as Iceland did recently."

Greenland and Iceland are "the epicenter of the U.S.-China competition in the Arctic," said Damien Degeorges, a Reykjavik-based consultant specializing in Greenlandic and Arctic affairs. It is "a soft competition so far, compared to the one ongoing in the South China Sea, but a very serious security issue" unfolding much closer to the U.S., he added

Greenland is home to Thule Air Base, the U.S. military's northernmost installation.

"Despite backlash at home, Denmark, which is a very close ally of the U.S., may certainly prefer to have to deal with a stronger U.S. influence in Greenland than a Chinese one," Degeorges said.

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