Arctic nations vow to keep the peace and fight climate change

US puts China and Russia on notice as tensions rise in the Far North

An officer speaks on walkie-talkie as the Bastion anti-ship missile systems take positions on the Alexandra Land island near Nagurskoye, Russia, Monday, May 17, 2021. Bristling with missiles and radar, Russia's northernmost military base projects the country's power and influence across the Arctic from a remote, desolate island amid an intensifying international competition for the region's vast resources. Russia's northernmost military outpost sits on the 80th parallel North, projecting power over wide swathes of Arctic amid an intensifying international rivalry over the polar region's vast resources. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
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Arctic countries have pledged to fight global warming and preserve peace despite rising tensions in the region.

Accelerated global warming, untapped resources, new maritime routes opened up by retreating sea ice and the future of local populations all topped the agenda as foreign ministers of countries bordering the Arctic gathered in Reykjavik in Iceland on Thursday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Arctic Council counterparts - from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden - that the region had “seized the world's attention” but the rule of law must prevail to keep it “free of conflict where countries act responsibly”.

"We are committed to advancing a peaceful Arctic region where co-operation prevails on climate, the environment, science and safety," he said.

The statement was a thinly-veiled warning to China, which, although only an observer on the Council, has made no secret of its interest in the vast territory rich in natural resources and where retreating sea ice has opened up new maritime routes.

Mr Blinken was also targeting Russia, after tense exchanges that preceded Thursday's meeting about the risk of a "militarisation" of the Arctic.

Russia has steadily beefed up its military presence in the Arctic in recent years, reopening and modernising several bases and airfields abandoned since the end of the Soviet era.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also accused Nato of using a "play on words" to justify setting up a military presence on Russia's doorstep.

He said he saw "no grounds" for conflict in the Arctic.

"We have highlighted at the meeting that we see no grounds for conflict here … And we are satisfied to note that our partners agree with us on this," he said.

Russia succeeded Iceland as rotating chair of the Arctic Council on Thursday.

Mr Lavrov said he supported the idea of hosting a summit of Arctic nations during its two-year presidency.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gesture as they arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021. Saul Loeb/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in their first meeting in Iceland. Reuters 

He also called for a resumption of regular meetings between the chiefs of staff of the council's member countries.

Russia has been excluded from these meetings since 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The Arctic Council was set up 25 years ago to deal with issues such as the environment and areas of international co-operation, and its mandate explicitly excludes military security.

With the departure of Donald Trump, who sparked agitation by proposing to buy Greenland in 2019, eyes have been on the line adopted by President Joe Biden's administration.

Mr Blinken, who on Wednesday sat down with Mr Lavrov in their first face-to-face meeting, emphasised "co-operation" rather than tensions.

The US top diplomat also focused on the fight against global warming, much in line with his counterparts who have rejoiced in recent days at the "return" of America to the international community consensus on the climate issue.

"The climate crisis is our most serious long-term threat with the Arctic warming three times faster than anywhere else on the planet," Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau told the council.

The alarming data was part of a report published Thursday by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, which also warned of an increased risk of the region's iconic sea ice disappearing completely in summer, before reforming in winter.

"We have a duty to strengthen our co-operation for the benefit of the people inhabiting the Arctic," Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said.

At the previous Council meeting in 2019, in Finland, the Trump administration blocked the signing of a joint declaration for the first time since the council's creation 25 years ago, as it refused to include climate change in the final statement.

The adoption of a joint statement on Thursday went without a hitch, as did the agreement of a 10-year strategic plan for the first time in the council's history.

In addition to the countries bordering the Arctic, the council also includes six organisations representing the indigenous peoples of the region and 13 observer countries.