The US View on the Arctic

As delivered at the Annual Security Policy Conference at Christiansborg, November 15, 2019


Your Excellencies, Members of Parliament, Generals, Ladies and Gentlemen – good afternoon. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about the United States and our view on the Arctic.

I want to thank our hosts, Folk & Sikkerhed, who have done a tremendous job putting together a conference of this magnitude – bringing together so many policymakers and experts on such a timely and important topic.  Events like this give us the chance to discuss shared security challenges and opportunities.  This is particularly important for a region like the Arctic, which is rapidly evolving and presents an increasingly complex security environment.

Since becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, I have traveled throughout the entire Kingdom.  I have visited the Faroe Islands and have been to Greenland a number of times – most recently just a few weeks ago with a US delegation, including representatives from our State Department, the Department of Defense, and our National Security Council.

Following discussions here in Copenhagen, we spent several days in Nuuk where we met with Danish and Greenlandic officials, including Premier Kielsen.  This important visit highlighted just how large the Kingdom of Denmark is and the challenging environmental and logistical conditions one encounters in Greenland.  We also met with the Joint Arctic Command in Nuuk, staffed by a skilled team who have a tough job that is growing more complex.  A visit onboard the HDMS Lauge Koch showed how Danish sailors operate in extreme conditions that can overwhelm their resources.  Greenland’s tough environment requires us to work together.

It’s clear that the recent US attention to Greenland has generated headlines around the world and in Denmark.  Some of these headlines have even been based on misinformation.  Make no mistake – the United States has a strong relationship with the Kingdom of Denmark, with shared values and interests. The United States and Denmark are, and will remain, 360-degree security partners in the Arctic, which means open lines of communication and wide-ranging collaboration.

The Arctic is attracting both regional and global interest. Besides the eight Arctic nations with territory inside the Arctic Circle, other nations are eyeing the North for power, profit and competition. Thirteen nations have become observers to the Arctic Council – ranging from the United Kingdom to Singapore.  As Secretary of State Pompeo said in his address to the Arctic Council last May: “the world has long felt a magnetic pull towards the Arctic, but never more so than today.”  While nations, businesses, and international organizations across the globe have shown an interest in the Arctic, I want to focus on two countries in particular.

Russia has reinvigorated its Arctic presence. They proudly showcase their icebreaker fleet, over 450 new Arctic military sites, 16 deep water ports, and increasingly capable air and maritime defense systems.  Many nations – including Denmark – have raised concerns over Russia’s Nagoysa Air Base, with its 3,500-meter runway and state of the art facilities that give Russian aircraft the ability to control Arctic sea lines of communication and enter the territory of other Arctic states. With the receding ice of the High North, Russia has focused on the region’s shipping lanes, claiming the international waters of the Northern Sea Route as their own.  Russia is obstructing maritime passage as shown by the recent Tsentr exercise, which brought Russian forces into the region. Russia is living up to its deep distrust of the United States, NATO, and our allies through its aggressive and provocative behavior in the Arctic.

The People’s Republic of China, too, is increasingly active in the Arctic, even calling itself a “near Arctic” nation.  There’s no such thing as a “near Arctic nation.” The Chinese Communist Party seeks to exploit the Arctic for its natural resources and maritime potential.  In fact, between 2012 and 2017, Beijing invested nearly $90 billion in the Arctic region.  Not only does China have plans for infrastructure from Canada to Siberia, it has already begun connecting the Northern Sea Route with its vision for a global maritime silk road, dubbing it the ‘Polar Silk Road’.  The Chinese Communist Party’s economic pursuits certainly strengthen the country’s military efforts and ability to operate in the Arctic.  Recently launching its first domestically-constructed icebreaker, the Xue Long 2. China has also begun efforts to build its first nuclear icebreaker that will rival Russia’s largest icebreakers.  Beijing’s Arctic activity has followed a familiar pattern of investment, research, and infrastructure; increased military and security efforts to protect its interests will follow.  We have seen this behavior repeated globally as the People’s Republic of China seeks to extend its economic, geopolitical, and military interests. Chinese activity in the Arctic results from a desire to expand influence and reach.

Our Pentagon has given indications that China will deploy submarines into the Arctic. China recently participated in Russia’s Tsentr exercise, highlighting the burgeoning relationship between the two countries. The Chinese Communist Party’s research and economic investment into the Arctic – particularly in the exploration and development of natural resources – is significant.

Like the Kingdom of Denmark, the United States is an Arctic nation, and we understand that the opportunities and abundance of the Arctic – its oil, natural gas, rare earth minerals, fisheries, and wildlife – demand careful management, rather than the outright exploitation we have seen from China in other parts of the world.  This is particularly important as the region becomes increasingly accessible – and non-Arctic states seek greater involvement in the region.

We are committed to a peaceful, stable Arctic.  We have provided security in the Arctic for a long time – on the seas, in the air and below the ice. Current US operations in the Arctic, including our military activity at Thule Air Base, contribute to not only the defense of the US homeland, but to our shared security and to regional stability.  As China and Russia increasingly seek to exploit and militarize the region, the US recognizes that we must do more.  And we are. Guided by our National Defense Strategy and our new Department of Defense Arctic Strategy released this summer, we are strengthening our Arctic capable forces, revitalizing our icebreaker fleet and creating a new senior military post for Arctic affairs.

Most importantly, we’re working with our Allies and partners in the region to ensure our common security goals are protected. Countries like Denmark have tremendous experience operating in the High North and we value opportunities to conduct exercises, training, and operations together so that we can improve both interoperability and our Arctic capabilities.  But this is nothing new; the United States has long been committed to the principles of NATO.  We remain deeply committed to our NATO Allies and will respond to any threat to the liberties that NATO protects.  Transatlantic cooperation is more valuable than ever and a strong NATO is important.  Given the complexity of the evolving Arctic region, we are asking our Allies – particularly the NATO Arctic nations – to do more as well.

This will not be easy.  The Arctic is a vast region, as the Kingdom of Denmark well understands. At your Arctic Command in Nuuk I gained new perspectives on the daunting task of protecting the Kingdom’s Arctic territory.  The expansive area, challenging operating environment, and rising regional threats demand greater resources to establish air and maritime domain awareness.  It is critical to be able to accurately detect, identify, and, if necessary, challenge any potential threats – whether on, over, or under Denmark’s sovereign Arctic domain.

It is in forums like this where the hard questions should be asked: Do we understand the current security environment in the Arctic?  Just as the United States is reexamining Arctic capabilities and priorities, the Kingdom of Denmark – and our other NATO Allies – should identify and solve their shortfalls.  We need to ask the difficult questions – do Greenland and the Faroe Islands have sufficient national defense resources?  Does the Kingdom of Denmark need to reprioritize or supplement its defense resources in order to defend itself?

NATO’s foundation is fair burden sharing.  All Allies have acknowledged the Wales pledge, and there has been great progress on NATO’s goals. Denmark, in particular, has contributed admirably to NATO exercises and operations.  But many NATO allies do not comply with the defense spending goal of 2%; yet the US spends more than 3.2% of GDP on defense.

The Danish Supplemental Agreement to the Defense Agreement is a good start.  It was great to see the impressive support from Parliament in support of increased defense spending, but more remains to be done if Denmark is to truly meet its capability and readiness requirements.  Denmark is strategically located and should have credible capabilities to deter any threat to the Kingdom, especially its interests in the Arctic.

The US and Denmark have a history of over 200 years of strong bilateral ties.  We will continue to work with Denmark and Greenland to assess potential investments in Greenland that are beneficial to the Greenlandic people and the US.  Our Department of Defense is looking at ways to help develop Greenland’s civilian airport infrastructure for our mutual benefit that will also better connect communities and encourage tourism.  At Thule Air Base, our Air Force employs Greenlanders and supports local communities.  While the United States has not yet made a decision on additional dual use military investments in Greenland, the US has already been an active player in the Arctic and will continue to stand with our partners in support of democracy and our joint prosperity.

Secretary Pompeo closed his Arctic Council speech last May focusing on 2 principles that defined the Arctic:  Partnerships and Courage.  He emphasized:  “Now is the time for increased vigilance and increased partnership and even more courage –  we must hold each other accountable – through courage and partnership we can succeed – and we can look forward to a bright, peaceful, sustainable future for this indispensable region”.

Thank you.