Beijing has rejected US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attack on its claim to be a “near-Arctic state”, as the two countries continue to spar over China’s role in the region.
Pompeo tweeted on Monday that it was a “communist fiction” that China was a near-Arctic nation, posting a map showing that the country was 900 miles (1,450km) from the Arctic Circle.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the comments on Tuesday, contrasting China’s involvement in the Arctic with US activities in the South China Sea.
“Mr Pompeo is not bad at calculating distance. Since he has figured out that China is 900 miles from the Arctic Circle, has he ever measured the distance between the continental United States and the South China Sea?” she said.
“The South China Sea is more than 8,300 miles away from the continental United States, or 5,800 miles away from Hawaii. Despite such distance, the US side has repeatedly sent warships and aircraft to the South China Sea for all kinds of military drills and close-in reconnaissance, without a break all year round.”
Tensions over the South China Sea have increased in recent years, with the US making a record number of freedom of navigation patrols in 2019. Last week it was revealed that China flew a record number of aircraft into Taiwan’s southwestern air defence identification zone last year, which analysts said was likely to boost its presence in the South China Sea.
In the Arctic, tensions have risen quickly since Beijing declared itself a “near-Arctic state” in a white paper in 2018. The paper also revealed plans for a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its controversial Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s increasing cooperation with Russia in the region has also worried Washington. In 2018, the China Development Bank signed a deal with Russia’s state-controlled Vnesheconombank (VEB) to provide Chinese investment of up to 600 billion roubles (US$8.1 billion) in the Russian Arctic region.
“Our relations with … the Arctic are warmer than they’ve ever been. Have to keep up the momentum, or Russia & China will fill the void,” Pompeo said in a separate tweet on Monday.
According to Mia Bennett, an Arctic researcher from the University of Hong Kong’s geography department, US concerns stem from a fear that it is fast falling behind China in the region.
“China has been increasing its capabilities in the Arctic in ways that may appear threatening to the US, in no small part because I might argue that these advances are happening more quickly than they are in the US,” she said.
Bennett added that China’s launch of its first domestically built icebreaker, the Xue Long 2, had worried the Donald Trump administration. The US has two operational icebreakers – one that is 44 years old and the other built in 2000. Washington ordered the urgent renewal of the fleet last June.
Bennett said Washington was concerned about China’s cooperation with Russia, but that the incoming Joe Biden administration would be less hawkish.
“China has built up a robust scientific and commercial presence in the Arctic that many hawks in DC – and particularly the Trump administration – view as overtly threatening to national interests and American security,” she said.
“While the Pentagon will remain cautious of China’s increasing capabilities in the region and its continued cooperation in both economic development and joint military exercises with Russia, the hot-tempered rhetoric of Mike Pompeo will soon be a thing of the past.”
Beijing says its presence in the Arctic is peaceful. “China respects the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction enjoyed by the Arctic states … and stands ready to contribute to peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic,” Hua said.