US Interest Part of Competition with China
US interest in Iceland and the Arctic region is clearly increasing. Mike Pence’s state visit to Iceland on Wednesday was accompanied by numerous military aircraft and highly visible security. This was the second visit of a high-ranking US official to the country this year, preceded by that of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February.
In June, we reported that the US Department of Defense plans to invest USD 57 million (EUR 50.3 million; ISK 7.1 billion) in military construction in Iceland in 2020. Last month, US President Donald Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark made headlines.
Iceland’s former ambassador to the US and foreign affairs specialist, Albert Jónsson, tells Morgunblaðið that representatives of the US government openly state their interest in Iceland and the Arctic region is part of their global competition with China.
“It all began with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Iceland in February,” Albert states. “A week prior to the visit, high-ranking representatives of the US Secretary of State had a teleconference with reporters. One of the questions asked was whether the US government worried about increased Chinese activity in the Arctic region. They received the response that it so happened Pompeo was going to stop by in Reykjavík, because of Chinese activity.”
“A few months later, US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Iceland,” Albert continues. “When he was leaving Höfði house [Wednesday], he spoke as clearly and openly about this as possible.” Albert notes that in addition, Pence referred to increased Russian activity in the Arctic region. Still, Russian policy in the Arctic region has been known for decades, Albert adds. The Russian interest lies mainly in the Kola Peninsula and the Barents Sea.
As he was leaving Höfði house, Pence surprised Icelandic officials by openly thanking them, in front of reporters, for declining to participate in the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative. The program has funded trains, roads and ports in many countries, leaving some in deep debt, according to the BBC. It is seen by some as a way to gain geopolitical influence. For more information about the Belt and Road initiative, see here.
The Icelandic government has, however, not made any decision regarding the program yet, and Jin Zhijian, the Chinese ambassador to Iceland responds to Pence’s remark in Morgunblaðið today by stating: “No decision has been made … I call this fake news.”
“Chinese interest [in the Arctic region], however, is new,” Albert states. “It is connected to a warming climate and the melting of polar ice. It remains to be seen what that will lead to and what becomes a reality – seaways and such. The Chinese have shown interest in Greenland and Iceland. The Chinese ambassador to Iceland openly speaks and writes of the openness of Icelandic authorities toward signing an agreement regarding Iceland’s participation in Belt and Road initiative … He speaks of Iceland potentially becoming a transport center.”
“The way I see it, Pompeo and Pence have come here to show certain resistance to this and to signal that Greenland and Iceland are within their territory,” Albert opines.