Facing increasing Russian and Chinese influence in the Arctic, the US State Department has appointed Jim DeHart as the US Coordinator for the region. The move comes just a week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed enhanced US engagement in the Arctic on a visit to Denmark.

“In Alaska there has been a peaked interest in terms of how the Arctic is changing with climate change or the melting of the ice as far as a new trade route over Russia,” Art Nash, associate professor of energy at University of Alaska Fairbanks told New Europe by phone on July 30. “There has been concern in Alaska because of our location, certainly with national security and our own security with the Arctic,” he added.

Filling a post that had been vacant for more than three years shows US interest in the Arctic. In May, the US opened a consulate in Nuuk, the capital of the semi-autonomous Danish territory of Greenland, as part of its new Arctic strategy. The US Department of State said in a statement on July 29, “The US plays a critical leadership role on Arctic issues within the international community and remains committed to ensuring a peaceful region where US interests are safeguarded, the US homeland is protected, and Arctic States work cooperatively to address shared challenges”. It added that the US works across the federal government and with state and local government and Arctic indigenous communities to maintain US leadership in the region to ensure a safe, secure, and prosperous future for all Arctic peoples.

Ash reminded that a US major coast guard base is on Kodiak Island in Alaska but the US urgently needs icebreaker ships in the Arctic. “Lisa Murkowski, our senior senator from Alaska, and Dan Sullivan have really tried to raise awareness in Washington DC within the Beltway about the importance of the Arctic and the importance of Alaska’s position and there has been a big push to get more coast guard ice cutters. That’s nothing new to us,” the professor at the University of Alaska said.

He noted that the US Coast Guard has “three, but really one and a half cutters” if you count for functionality. The Healy, which was built in 2000, is fully functional, and the Polar Star and Polar Sea are each over 40 years old and are partially functional; all are research vessels and cover from the North to the South Pole. The Mackinaw is in the Midwest US Great Lakes but was built during World War II and is large enough to not be able to leave the lakes through it’s channels, Ash said.

US President Donald J. Trump has ordered a new fleet of icebreakers. But Ash said there are no much for Russian nuclear ice breakers. “You can still count them in one hand the ones that we have and the ones that coming. Russia, on the other hand, at least as of a few years ago I think certainly had more than three dozen. Now, some of their fleet is aging, there is no question about it, but there is a lot of muscle flexing and I think maybe entrancement and there is a new military base I think in Siberia that is related to Arctic strategy,” Ash told New Europe.

He noted that China also has a great interest in the Arctic and in the northern passage coming through the Bering Straits and going across Russia and having unfettered access because it can get container ships and trade ships from east coast to China and over to Rotterdam and get goods to Europe. “Now with the shipping lanes open during the summer it just cuts an immense amount of time, fuel, manpower and such before from what I understand they were having to go and around Africa and the Suez so that’s certainly one of their big interests,” Ash said.

“There’s obviously creative ways that China has been figuring out to go ahead and extend its reach into ocean waters and along the north passage and north of the Bering Straits there is a good amount of subsurface earth metals. They are possibly wanting to position themselves on the surface drilling to get some of the metals and mine these metals,” Ash said.

The EU also wants to be on forefront with a clear and coherent Arctic policy to tackle the challenges in the years ahead. On July 20, the European Commission and the European External Action Service jointly launched a public consultation on the way forward for the EU’s Arctic policy.

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