A new Ilulissat Declaration on security and defence is needed in the Arctic

Peter Viggo Jakobsen

China’s growing presence poses a threat to the stability of the Arctic. Rather than criticize the United States for sounding the alarm the five Arctic coastal states – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States – should cooperate to solve the problem.


On 6 May 2019, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told China and Russia to stop their aggressive behaviour in the Arctic in a very blunt manner at a meeting in the Arctic Council. His speech triggered a shower of criticism because he broke the rules stipulating that one cannot discuss security and defence issues in the Arctic Council. Pompeo has been widely attacked for starting a Cold War in the Arctic and threatening its exceptional status as an area of low-tension and cooperation. This is ludicrous. Pompeo merely pointed out that China and Russia are taking steps in the Arctic that may trigger a Cold War in the longer term.


It is not the first time that policy makers and analysts cry wolf in the Arctic. Back in 2008, the American Arctic expert Scott Borgerson warned in the leading American magazine “Foreign Affairs” that the abundance of natural resources could lead to a Cold War between the five Arctic coastal states.


His warning was triggered by Russia’s spectacular attempt to stake out its territorial claim for the North Pole by planting of a titanium flag on the seabed below it. This act also got the attention of Denmark and Greenland. The governments in Copenhagen and Nuuk reacted by launching a diplomatic process, which led to the adoption of the Ilulissat Declaration by the five Arctic coastal states in 2008. In this declaration, the Arctic Coastal States made a commitment to solve their territorial disputes through international law and by peaceful means, strengthen practical cooperation with respect to safety of navigation, search and rescue, environmental monitoring and disaster response and scientific cooperation. In addition, they rejected the call for a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean.


The Ilulissat Declaration was a great success. It halted the growing tensions among the five coastal states and laid the foundation for cooperation in the Arctic, which has survived the confrontations between Russia and the Western coastal states in other parts of the globe.


The Illulissat Declaration does not include security and defence, and this renders it incapable of countering the challenge posed by China’s growing presence in the Arctic. Chinese investments and ambitions in the Arctic have grown in tandem with its political, economic and military rise in the past twenty years. Since 1993 when China acquired the Snow Dragon (Xuelong), its first icebreaker, it has established itself as an Arctic research nation by means of scientific expeditions, the establishment of research stations and international cooperation. The launch of the Snow Dragon II in 2018 will strengthen these activities further.


Chinese businessmen have followed in the footsteps of the scientists with (offers of) investments, free-trade agreements and joint ventures with local firms in the strategic sectors of energy, infrastructure, and mining. China has acquired permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, refers to itself as a ”near”-Arctic state, regards the maritime “Polar Silk Road” north of Russia as strategic and wants its “legitimate” share of the Arctic’s natural resources. As Rear Admiral (retired) Yin Zhuo put it in 2010: »China’s population accounts for one-fifth of the world’s population, so why shouldn’t we get a fifth of the resources in the Antarctic and Arctic?« He added that China would fight for this right.


Pompeo’s warning in the Arctic Council underlines the need for action. China cannot press its demands in the Arctic with military means yet. However, it is building a blue-water navy which will enable it to do so in the longer term. In Africa, Chinese businessmen arrived first followed by “peacekeeping” forces to protect China’s economic interests. Currently, China is establishing naval bases to protect the sea lines of communication between China and Africa. Nothing suggests that China will not do the same in the Arctic: first scientists, then businessmen and finally military forces when the necessary capacity has been created.


All five Arctic coastal states worry about China’s growing influence, and they share a common interest in bringing it under control. None of them can do it alone. It will require cooperation and the formulation of clear rules regulating China’s (and other actors) scientific, economic and military activities. Their common interest could form the basis for a new Ilulissat Declaration on security and defence.


From the perspective of Copenhagen and Nuuk, defence and security cooperation among the five Artic coastal states would have major advantages. It would make it much easier for Denmark and Greenland to withstand Chinese pressure and Panda-diplomacy if they could refer to a set of common rules for scientific, economic and military activities in the Arctic that had American and Russian backing. It would also make it harder for Beijing to play Copenhagen and Nuuk off against each other.


Expanded cooperation could serve as a basis for improving the relationship between Russia and the four Western coastal states. This relationship has deteriorated since the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and the five states now view each other’s’ military moves in the Arctic as driven by offensive motives even though most of them just as well could be interpreted as defensive. This negative spiral must be stopped. Clear rules guiding military activities and Western economic investments in the Russian part of the Arctic would help to do so by increasing transparency, trust and reducing the Russian dependence on Chinese money.


Increased Western pressure on Russia in the Arctic will force Moscow into the arms of Beijing for lack of an alternative. We are moving towards a new world order characterized by a high degree of political and economic rivalry between China and the United States. In this order it is of great strategic importance for the West to establish an interest-based relationship with Russia. The Arctic is the best place to start the process of building such a relationship, because the United States and Russia share a common interest in preventing China from claiming some of the territory and the natural resources that will become theirs if the rules laid down by the current Ilulissat Declaration are upheld.


Pompeo’s speech to the Arctic Council shows that the United States finally has put the Arctic on its policy agenda. It is equally clear that the Trump Administration’s Arctic policy is not etched in stone yet. This gives Denmark and Greenland an opportunity to influence decision making in Washington in the same way as in 2007-08, when the United States became concerned about Russia’s intentions following its planting of the flag on the seabed below the North Pole.


Back then, Copenhagen and Nuuk seized the opportunity. They should do so again. Cooperation among the Arctic coastal states is the only effective way to manage China’s growing influence. EU and NATO with never be of much use because most of their member states have no interest in supporting policy that may anger Beijing. Only the five coastal states have interests that are sufficiently strong to make it worth their while. They share a strong common interest in preserving their privileged access to the resources in the Arctic and in regulating and monitoring China’s (and other actors) growing presence in the region.


It is important to act now for three reasons. Denmark and Greenland’s opportunity to influence Arctic decision-making in Washington is highest in the present phase before the Trump Administration settles on its emerging Arctic strategy. The policy-window opened by Pompeo’s speech to the Arctic Council will close soon. The second reason for urgency is that China’s growing influence must be regulated before it becomes impossible to roll back. The third reason is that the lack of a meaningful dialogue on security and defence has been a source of growing frustration between Nuuk and Copenhagen in recent years. The launch of a new Ilulissat-initiative would give both governments a concrete common goal to aim for in their efforts to establish such a dialogue. Several political parties have stated their intention to improve the dialogue on security and defence between Copenhagen and Nuuk in their campaigns for the general election on 5 June. Pompeo’s speech to the Arctic Council underlines that they better get started.


Op-ed first published in Danish in the daily Jyllands-Posten, 1 June 2019.


Peter Viggo Jakobsen is Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College and part time Professor at the Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark.