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New U.S. Arctic strategy omits climate change, takes aim at China, Russia

Sea ice off the coast of Greenland
A lone iceberg amid sea ice along the coast near Sermilik Fjord, Greenland. Photo: NASA/Joe MacGregor

The Defense Department quietly released a new Arctic strategy on Thursday that omits any mention of climate change in the region and casts the Far North as increasingly slipping into a zone of great power competition.

Why it matters: The Arctic has long been a region where the eight Arctic nations have collaborated on governance challenges as well as environmental and scientific concerns. However, with a buildup in Russia's military presence in the region, and China's increasingly assertive role as a "near-Arctic" nation, the U.S. is taking a more aggressive posture.

Details: The new strategy, which replaces one the Pentagon issued in 2016, makes mention of melting sea ice and increasing temperatures in the Arctic, but does not cite human-caused climate change as the driver of these trends.

  • In fact, it omits the term "climate change" altogether, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are pushing the Arctic climate into a new and perilous era.

The big picture: The strategy echoes a bellicose speech delivered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a meeting of Arctic nations in Finland last month, where he warned that China and Russia are turning the Arctic into a region of great power competition.

  • The strategy refers to the Arctic as a potential corridor of "expanded strategic competitions."
  • It also warns of China's extension of its Belt and Road Initiative to the region and pursuit of dual-use infrastructure to project power in the Far North.

But, but, but: While the new strategy suggests the U.S. will deploy more forces to the Arctic and seek to assert itself more in the region, there are limited opportunities to do so in the near-term due to a lack of Arctic-capable military assets.

  • These range from America's tiny number of icebreakers when compared to Russia, as well as the lack of serviceable military outposts in the region.

What they're saying: "While the 2016 Arctic strategy highlighted the collaborative nature of the region, the U.S. now sees the Arctic 'in an era of strategic competition,'" Malte Humpert, the founder and senior scholar at The Arctic Institute, tells Axios.

  • "With the first new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and any possibility to increase its surface vessel presence in the Arctic at least 6 years in the future, for now, the U.S. has to resign itself to stepping up its 'Arctic rhetoric' instead."

Go deeper: The Arctic is unraveling as climate change intensifies