The Diplomat is running a series of interviews with Washington DC-based ambassadors on defense, diplomacy, and trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In this seventh interview in the series, conducted by Washington correspondent Eddie Walsh, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Chr. Strommen discusses how the opening of the Arctic will affect the national interests of China, NATO, Russia and other Asian powers.
One of the countries that might wish to challenge the status quo in the Arctic is China. Clearly, as a non-Arctic state, it’s difficult for them to advance their national interests in the region. What are your thoughts on how China can be properly accommodated in the Arctic?
When we think of China, we think about it as an Arctic issue. For Norway, China isn’t some place you get to by sailing through the Suez Canal or around Africa. It’s somewhere you get to by going over the top of the world. If you live in Africa, you may have a different geographic view. But for us, our Asian Century will be over the top.
So, we welcome the Chinese concerns. They will be sending ships to the Arctic along with many others. In fact, we had commercial routes through the Arctic to China last summer. Issues such as maritime transportation will need to be the joint responsibility of everyone. If you are going to send a ship up there and be commercially active, your involvement is necessary.
We also have research facilities in the Arctic at 80 degrees, which is seriously to the north. We welcome others there for research. The Chinese, as well as the Americans and others, are already there. The scientific impact is huge. The Arctic is a laboratory for many things, from temperature change to oceanic research. We certainly want more countries, including those from Asia, to be able to take advantage of Arctic research opportunities.
Given the number of outstanding maritime border disputes in the Arctic and its growing role in the global commons, some fear that the Arctic could evolve into another South China Sea security situation. What is your reaction to such claims? Are you optimistic that Arctic security can be better managed than the major maritime disputes in the South or East China Seas?
I don’t think that one can compare one geographic region to another. It’s not very helpful. The South China Sea is so far away. We can manage this area as our neighborhood. It might be a nice study to do in the abstract, but it’s not going to help those who are trying to manage the Arctic.
With respect to the Arctic, one has to keep everything in perspective. What we have here shouldn’t be exaggerated. These disputes will be resolved in the confines of international law. You shouldn’t be too concerned about the Russians planting a flag on the North Pole. Furthermore, we have regional institutions who have long managed security issues in the Arctic. Norway and our neighbors are comfortable working out disputes through them.
A recent Center for Strategic and International Studies report suggests that the U.S. Arctic strategic vision, focus, and engagement have been insufficient. Do you agree with this characterization of U.S. Arctic strategy?
The United States has very capable people who are very knowledgeable about the Arctic. The U.S. has been engaged in the Arctic Council, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been an eager participant. So I wouldn’t agree that it’s insufficient. We always have a partner in the U.S., but it’s up to them to decide how much investment to make.
Unlike China, the U.S. has a physical presence there and a coastline. In the United States, there’s a dual track. On one side, the U.S. is an Arctic country. On the other, the United States has global maritime, security, oil, fisheries, and other interests. The U.S. has a number of agencies that have responsibilities for both – the Navy and the Coast Guard, of course, but also the various agencies that coordinate on oil and gas, which is becoming a big issue again there.
Norway maintains relations with these institutions. For example, the day we finished the delimitation of our border with Russia, I had a number of agencies at my door from the Navy and Coast Guard to the State Department, Fisheries Administration and State of Alaska.
How have reductions in U.S. defense spending, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the strategic shift to Asia affected progress on Arctic security cooperation?
There’s huge, growing interest from the U.S. military. The Arctic is the part of the world that is changing the most physically. That isn’t lost on the U.S. military, I assure you. They monitor it and follow it. We have a strong partner there. There is a visibly increased interest in Arctic issues in the U.S. military, and I include in that the U.S. Coast Guard…But the U.S. must decide what kind of resources to devote. How that materializes into assets, like ice breakers, isn’t for me to decide.
Many regional actors are in the process of strengthening their Arctic military capabilities. How are these investments affecting the threat environment in the Arctic region?
I wouldn’t start by saying that new capabilities in the Arctic should be seen purely in a security context. We have always tried to make sure that we have the capacity to watch over our own area. And one must understand that the Russians have a need to modernize their own capabilities to operate in these areas just as the Americans, Canadians, and the Danes. This is a rough and tough area and you have to modernize if for no other reason than for the safety of your own people and environmental concerns. You need to be able to enforce the territories under your jurisdiction, and they are expensive.
We are quite proud that we have built up a large navy and coast guard in the last few years. It’s quite adequate for our needs in the North. But, you shouldn’t interpret that in an aggressive way. These are very difficult and challenging environments. These aren’t the tropics, so you have to use military assets and military equipped platforms to have any kind of presence for search and rescue, fisheries oversight, etc.
In 2007, Russia resumed strategic bomber flights in the Arctic region. The number of Russian combat aircraft flying along the Norwegian coast went from 14 in 2006 to 88 in 2007. What sort of message did this send to Norway?
That isn’t necessarily an Arctic issue. That’s a broader security issue. I wouldn’t try to limit it to an Arctic box. It needs to be viewed in a regional context. A conversation over that would have to be taken in the broader North Atlantic context. Of course it concerns me, but these things have happened before.
How do limitations in satellite communication and hydro mapping factors complicate security issues for regional actors? How is Norway working with other NATO countries and Russia to overcome these challenges?
That’s a good question and a major concern. Those who are active in the region have good communications. We have good communications with the Russians and the Danes. But, I’m not sure how much communications we would have over the pole to the Canadians. But how good they are, I am not sure of. I will need to look into it.
That said, every now and then, we pick up small sailing boats that try to make their way to the North Pole, especially in the summertime. It’s a concern that there’s more traffic of smaller vessels that aren’t prepared with proper equipment and maritime charts. And the cruise industry has clearly grown. You are in dangerous waters. Communications are hard. And, you can add to that the climatic conditions – the darkness and a lot of floating ice.
Last year, two Norwegians, a Frenchman and a Russian sailed along the whole polar basin in a catamaran – a tiny boat that can’t take any ice. They relied on sailing along the Northwest Passage. They did it in 2 to 3 months. A few years ago, it would have taken three years. This proves how much the ice has been melting and that it’s possible. Now, these were very skilled mariners who came out of our academy. But if you have others who try to do that who aren’t equipped and aware, you have an issue.