THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing on Arctic issues with U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz and U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region James DeHart. My name is Wes —
What’s happening here for a minute? All right, yeah, please mute yourself when you come in.
My name is Wes Robertson and I’m the moderator for today’s briefing, and now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript and video for this briefing later today on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet you represent.
First we will hear from Coordinator DeHart, who will be followed by Admiral Schultz. After their remarks, we’ll open it up for questions and answers.
So over to you, Coordinator DeHart.
MR DEHART: Thanks very much, and appreciate being here and appreciate the interest. Let me just start by saying here at Coast Guard Headquarters how much we value the great partnership that we have with the Coast Guard from the Department of State. It’s great to be here with Admiral Schultz. We coordinate very closely on all issues related to the Arctic and we have just tremendous respect for what the United States Coast Guard does in protecting our citizens, our commercial interests, and supporting great science in the Arctic and great cooperation with other nations in the Arctic. So I’m really pleased to do this event together.
Let me just say a few words about our broader Arctic diplomacy and policy, and then we could go into discussions of the upcoming Arctic Council ministerial. But first I would say in understanding our approach to the Arctic region, it’s important, I think, to understand the national security guidance that was issued by President Biden in March. And he talked about three very important principles that we take in the world and that apply to the Arctic as well, and the first is the United States is going to work very hard to uphold international law, international rules, and institutions that work for us across the world and in the Arctic region. And make no mistake: There is very strong governance in the Arctic region. There are strong rules centered around the Law of the Sea that uphold our interest in freedom of navigation, in the responsible management of marine resources, and extended continental shelf claims. The rules are very strong, and so we need to insist that all nations adhere to those rules.
And there’s a very strong institution, the Arctic Council, which is really at the forefront of governance in the Arctic region. It puts the eight Arctic states, together with indigenous communities, at the forefront, and it serves all of our interests very well and it’s functioning very well. And so Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be attending the Arctic Council ministerial next week, a very important event, and we have a real interest in upholding the Arctic Council as the region’s premier multilateral forum, and we will do that.
The second principle I would point to from the President’s guidance is the importance of our alliances, because we are always stronger when we’re working together with our allies. And there is work that we don’t do in the Arctic Council, and that is namely military security issues, but we address those issues together with our close allies and our partners bilaterally and through NATO and through NORAD with Canada, through these strong alliances. And so our administration is fully committed to strengthening and revitalizing these alliances.
And the third principle I would just point to quickly is our President has talked about the importance of connecting our foreign policy to domestic renewal and making sure that our foreign policies have benefits to our citizens. And the United States is an Arctic nation by virtue of the state of Alaska. These are our Arctic citizens, and we need to connect very strongly with Alaska and we do so. How we invest in Alaska domestically has an impact on what we can do overseas and project influence beyond the American Arctic, so we’re focused on that. And we’re mindful of the need for good, high-standard investment across the Arctic region, including in Alaska, that contributes to people’s livelihoods, helps people lead a better life.
So let me stop there with those three principles and then happy to talk later here about our goals for the ministerial next week. Thanks.
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: And Wes, good morning, and just it’s my privilege to host the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic, Minister Counselor DeHart here, and as the minister counselor said, we do have a great working relationship. The Coast Guard is excited to be part of the team. We recently participated in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum in the last couple weeks, with Iceland holding the chair and getting ready to transition the chair coming out of the Arctic Council here next week. I thought we had a very productive session and I think really working through the Coast Guard Forum, which is really operationally – an operationally driven organization that dates back to its establishment in 2015. A lot of goodness came out of our recent gathering here. It’s not bound by treaty, the forum; it’s really about safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic. I think that’s very much aligned with Mr. DeHart’s words here.
We look forward to continued collaboration, thickening the lines with the Arctic Council. The forum’s Combined Operational Working Group and the Arctic Council’s Work Group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response – we formalized a statement of agreement between those two entities, and that really is a place where collaboration is seamless. I think that’s really thickening the lines of how we work together between the council and the Coast Guard Forum. We look forward to Russia taking over the chairmanship here. The first activity for the experts will be this fall, October of – fall of ’21 and under Russia’s chair, so that’ll be a new phase of the short-lived six-year history of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. But I think there’s a lot of good things.
Just some wrapping up, because I think the questions are what today is all about, but really, the safe, secure, environmentally sound Arctic – how do we link activities, maritime activities with indigenous interests here in the United States? I think that’s shared amongst other Arctic nation stakeholders, and at the end of the day, we want to step out together. We enjoy with the new chairmanship with Russia, with the Russia Border Guard – we have a very pragmatic, functional working relationship. Our 17th Coast Guard district, which is based out of Juneau, Alaska, works search and rescue, works environmental response. We’ve worked through the International Maritime Organization about shipping routes in Bering Sea to separate commercial traffic from fishing vessels, and we also collaborate on what is termed globally as illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing activity.
So I think there’s a lot of common interest to build on, and I’ll stop my comments here and look forward to the questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for those opening statements. If you have questions, please go to participant field and virtually raise your hand. We will call on you, and you can unmute yourself and then ask your question. You can also submit questions in the chat box. If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.
Let’s see. All right. It looks like the first question we have is from Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS, Russia. Go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hey, guys, can you hear me?
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: Yes. We can hear you, Dmitry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you very much for – to our colleagues at the FPC for arranging this and thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador and Admiral, for taking part in the Zoom session. Ambassador, I wanted to ask you about an upcoming Reykjavik meeting, not surprisingly. And this is not your bailiwick per se, I’m guessing, but still I wanted to give it a shot. Are you ready at this time to announce whether Minster Lavrov and Secretary Blinken would hold a bilateral on the margins of this event, of this ministerial?
And secondly, sir, what are your expectations precisely from both the upcoming ministerial in Iceland and the Russian chairmanship in the council? And to the Admiral, sir, I was hoping you could – my apologies if I missed it – I think you mentioned October 21st. I was hoping you could clarify what – what about – is it – it’s a date for what exactly? Thank you.
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: Let me grab that first because that’s easy, then I’ll punt it to the minister counsel (ph). So October 21st would be the first meeting of – within the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, that is the first experts meeting. So the way the forum works is we get the principals together on a periodic basis, but these are the experts that – kind of the working groups that tackle the common interests amongst the eight Arctic nations. So that is the first Russia-chaired working group experts meeting in October.
MR DEHART: Yeah, Dmitry thank you. First, on your question regarding a bilat, I would expect they’ll certainly – Secretary Blinken and Minister Lavrov will certainly see each other, but I’m not in a position at this time to confirm a bilateral meeting. In terms of expectations for the ministerial – so this is a really important event. These Arctic Council ministerials happen only ever couple of years, bringing the minsters together.
And I think that first of all, we’re going to see solidarity among the Arctic states in the form of an agreed declaration, which we didn’t have two years ago, but I am very confident that we will have at this ministerial. And I think we’ll see that strong emphasis on cooperation among the Arctic states and together with indigenous communities. I think we’re going to see a strong affirmation that the Arctic Council is the premier forum for the region. And I think there’s a strong likelihood that we’ll see the ministers lay out a vision for the council for the next ten years, a strategic vision.
For us, it’s an opportunity to reset our leadership, and in particular on the issue of climate change. And I think that we will see ministers elevate that issue of climate change and climate change action through the Arctic Council, including to address the problem of black carbon, which is particularly relevant to the Arctic. We’re going to see elevated indigenous voices. Secretary Blinken will meet with the U.S. permanent participants that – the native communities from Alaska. And I think also, this is a – this is an opportunity to reinforce our intent to continue cooperating constructively with Russia through the Arctic Council.
We can – we believe that is possible through the Russian chairmanship, and we have every intent to do that. I think it will be important that Russia, as it chair’s the council, maintains the focus on the entire Arctic region for the benefit of the entire region and respects the norms and the practices and the council that have worked so well over the years.
QUESTION: I appreciate it very much, gentlemen.
MODERATOR: We have a question that was submitted in advance from Mark Magnier from SMP in Hong Kong. Mark, you’re here. Would you like to ask the question live? If not, I can go ahead and read it. He asks: “What are the risks and safeguards stemming from China’s near-Arctic power strategy and growing assertiveness?”
MR DEHART: So what we’ve seen from Beijing is the PRC clearly has an interest, a long-term interest in the Arctic region, an interest in becoming more involved, more present there. And some of those activities give us concern. We look at how the PRC has invested elsewhere in the world, bringing some approaches in its investments that are not sustainable, that lead to unsustainable debt, that are not respectful of local communities’ needs or following through on promises made. And so we want to make sure that there’s high standard investment in the Arctic and that’s of benefit to local communities.
And we also have to make sure that any country that is looking at acquiring critical infrastructure, that we’re taking a look at those investments through a national security lens. Because Chinese interest in mineral rights or ports or airports or digital infrastructure potentially can lead to some national security concerns. We’ve worked closely with our allies and partners on this. It’s important to have investment screening legislation, for example, to allow that national security look. And we also give attention to Beijing’s science platforms in the region which clearly have dual-use potential in what the – in the data that they are collecting in the region. So look, in short, we’re not saying no to all Chinese activities or to Chinese investment, but we are insisting on adherence to international rules and adherence to high standards.
MODERATOR: Thank you. At this time, I don’t see any additional questions, yet. If there are any other points you would like to make or closing statements, I guess we can go ahead and go to those. All right, we have one more question here. Let’s see. Christopher Woody from – would you like to go ahead and ask your question? You can unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Thank you both for your time today. Admiral Schultz, if I recall correctly, you were recently in Europe ahead of the cutter, Hamilton’s, exchanges with countries around the Mediterranean. I wanted to ask if there’s any similar operations or similar exchanges with countries of the European Arctic that you could preview for us today.
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: Yeah. No, Mr. Woody. Ambassador – I was over there in Europe and we had a chance to meet with NAVEUR Admiral Bob Burke and Gene Black from the 6th Fleet over there. We had a great visit and talked about some complementary Coast Guard capabilities, and national security cutter Hamilton is operating on the Black Sea as we speak and I think today doing some collaboration and capacity building with the Ukrainians. We’ve done some work with the Georgians. So a lot of goodness coming out of that. And I think it’s just a very visible stage, obviously, with some recent tensions and activities. The initial cause of that trip was we were escorting two fast-response cutters over to 5th Fleet. These are replacing some older ships there.
But to your question, what we’re doing here this coming fall, late summer/early fall is we’re going to take the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, which is our 420-foot medium icebreaker – it’s the biggest ship in our inventory, but it really is a medium not a heavy breaker. And working with the Government of Canada, we’re going to do a Northwest Passage transit. We’ll have some scientists on board, we’ll have some international ice sailors on board to help build out – there’s not a lot of allied partner icebreakers out there, so when we have an opportunity – we’ll probably have some Royal Navy sailors on board. We’ll have some folks from various science communities.
We will do science beforehand up in the Pacific, Alaska Arctic, and then we’ll go back, reprovision in Seattle, then do the Northwest Passage transit. We’ll pop out to the Atlantic after doing science up in Baffin Bay and other places. I think we’re going to try and get to Greenland. And I think we’re expecting a lot of good collaboration, cooperation and goodness out of that.
She will circumnavigate the United States on our way back to her home port in Seattle. We hope to maybe do a port call or two on the East Coast of the United States, maybe get some interested stakeholders here from the United States Government on board.
And really what I have talked about, Mr. Woody, is really presence equals influence in the Arctic. The last question about near – self-declared near-Arctic nation China, they’ve been up there with Xue Long 1 here seven, eight of the last 10 or 11 years. And there’s a trillion dollars of rich minerals on the ocean floor. There’s a third of world’s untapped LNG. There’s in the teen percentages of petroleum products. There’s national security interests as we look at protecting our national interest over the whole region. There’s been some recent indicators of some bottom sampling and things by the Chinese. So there’s a lot of things to pay attention to.
And what we’re trying to do in the Coast Guard is we’re building our first polar security cutter down in VT Halter in Mississippi, and we’ll start cutting steel in the coming weeks and months here on that, and we been funded by the Congress here in the recent 2021 appropriation for production money for the second breaker. That’s (inaudible) record of three polar security cutters. Hopefully, maybe there’s a conversation beyond that. But we really need to increase our presence.
Right now, the Healy has been in the Arctic. We did something unique this past year because the National Science Foundation waved off on our annual McMurdo resupply mission to Antarctica. We sent the Polar Star, our 45-year-old heavy icebreaker up to the Arctic. And that’s a pretty tough environment for a 45-year-old ship, but we got a lot of goodness out of that. We had, again, science community folks on board, some UK sailors, some Canadians, just building out sort of our allied team of Arctic stakeholders there. So I think in the Arctic it will be more of that type of work.
And obviously, when we build more ships, we’ll increase our presence. The goal would be – I talk about a 6-3-1 strategy. It’s a minimum of six icebreakers. Within that six, three need to be heavy, and that’s the polar security cutter class. Maybe the second class would be some kind of Arctic security cutter, a little more like what the Canadians are building and the Norwegians have built. But I think that’s the conversation we need to have as a nation.
We’ve done some work at the behest of the National Security Council to say, “What do you really need, Coast Guard?” We think it’s a fleet that’s closer to eight to 10 vessels, maybe upwards of six larger vessels. But again, I don’t want to get too far ahead of my skis on it. Right now, we’re focused on the first polar security cutter and funding on the second with plans for a third.
So I hope that’s responsive to your question there, Mr. Woody.
MODERATOR: All right. We do have another question from Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS. If you want to go ahead and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Ambassador DeHart, may I ask you if a climate change – I mean, you spoke about climate change specifically several days ago at the event at the Brookings – or whatever thinktank it was – highlighting it as a potential area for cooperation or in-depth cooperation with Russia while it chairs the Arctic Council. Is it that the only area, the only sphere, the only set of issues that you see as ripe for bilateral cooperation or in-depth cooperation or is there anything else, other areas that might be mutually beneficial for both countries?
MR DEHART: Yeah, thank you. So first, on climate, our President has directed that we need to address climate through every forum, every organization, every institution that touches on the issue, and so we certainly want to do that through the Arctic Council. We have a – I think we have a broader interest beyond the Arctic in cooperation with Russia to address climate change. So it’s both in the Arctic through the Arctic Council and I think well beyond.
I think we have good opportunities for cooperation, including with Russia, among all the states of the Arctic Council, on science. And science in a whole number of areas – responding to wildfires that are increasingly severe as a result of climate change. That’s an issue for Russia, it’s an issue for the United States and others as well.
But we’re also looking to see more details on the Russian program that it attends under the – under its chairmanship. And when we see those additional elements from the Russian side, I think we’ll be in a position to respond further.
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: And I think, Dmitry, the Russian – the thawing permafrost and the environmental challenge that Russia has to respond to, with petroleum products, I think spanning seven, eight miles from that, I think, really the climate stuff feeds the environmental cooperation, collaboration too, because I think as the climate changes, those threats go up. Here in the United States, up in places like Kotzebue and others, we’re taking inventory of those facilities we have – the old storage tanks, waterfront facilities, erosion of the coastline moving further into these communities and how it affects the indigenous population.
I think the climate opens up many opportunities that are already existing in places, but where an additional level of urgency, and how do we respond as a collective body – the council, the Coast Guard Forum on these – more threatening, more imminent environmental potential disasters here that could – and then increased shipping. What does it look like if today it’s the Silver Sea with 400 passengers on board, but as the Arctic potentially continues to become increasingly open, larger ships – maybe it’s thousands of people on board and you have a – some type of a shipping disaster with a cruise ship up there. How do we respond as a global society? Because there’s probably folks from all over the world up there. And it could be in – the Arctic touches many different nation states here. I think how do we think through that problem collectively? I think that’s another place where it becomes more imminent, more urgent that we continue to collaborate.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: All right. We have an additional question from Mika Hentunen from Finnish Broadcasting. Go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’m Mika Hentunen from Finnish Broadcasting Company, U.S. correspondent for them. You mentioned the icebreakers, so I wanted to ask you: Are you planning to discuss the question on icebreakers and the cooperation on heavy icebreakers in Reykjavik? And what sort of cooperation there might be, then, regarding them.
MR DEHART: It’s – I would not expect it to be an issue on the agenda per se of the Arctic Council. It’s obviously having a capable icebreaker fleet, which of course the commandant can speak to much better than I can, is very much in our national interest. But it will not be a main agenda item at this ministerial.
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: And Mika, from a United States icebreaking capabilities capacity conversation, the Coast Guard has the two icebreakers in the inventory. I alluded to the 45-year-old heavy breaker and the 20-plus-year-old medium breaker, the Healy. We have had some ongoing discussions here. Given that, to build a large icebreaker, the Polar Security Class ship, that’s about a – that could be about a 10-year project. We’ve compressed that down and are trying to accomplish that in six, seven years. That’s aggressive. I think our breaker, by contractual standards, we talk about 2024. That’s probably guardedly optimistic.
So there has been some discussions about bridging strategies. Could we do some type of a leasing arrangement to bring some capacity into that gap? Because it walks back to my posture about presence equals influence in the high latitudes. And when you only have the one 45-year-old ship that makes one trip to McMurdo Station every year – and it really takes us quite a bit of expenditure of finite Coast Guard resources just to make that trip. We have a longstanding agreement with the National Science Foundation. So that is about what that ship will do. Again, a little bit of an open calendar space this year that took us to the north. But I don’t think that’ll – I envision us to be back every year to McMurdo in the future years for the Polar Star.
So yeah, there’s been some discussions about bridging, possible leasing, and I think that’s ongoing discussions here. We have a new change in administration, obviously, the United States, and different people in different chairs. But those conversations, I think everyone agrees more capacity would be a good thing for our nation, and that probably would be something operated by the Coast Guard. It is under a demise charter? Could it potentially be a purchase thing? There’s a lot of different permutations here that we’re just in the – sort of the thick of the conversations about.
QUESTION: Thanks. Thank you.
MODERATOR: I don’t see any additional questions at this time. So if either of you would like to say any final closing remarks, or do you have closing remarks?
MR DEHART: Do you want to have the last word?
ADMIRAL SCHULTZ: Yeah. I’ll give you the last word. I would just say from a Coast Guard Forum, then I think I’ll roll to my State interlocutor is really the strategic level. From a Coast Guard Forum standpoint, we remain committed to the forum. The fall forum – I think it’s six years in its existence – is very functional. It will remain operationally oriented. I didn’t talk earlier about the Arctic Guardian virtual exercise, but that was – I talked a little bit about it – that was very productive. I think we will continue to try to exercise as an eight-nation Arctic coast guard group because that’s really where we better understand what we bring to the problem. We bring pragmatic solutions.
I think continued thickening of the lines between the Coast Guard Forum and the Arctic Council looks to be the right way forward, and that is on a good, strong trajectory. So I will leave it there, but just saying the United States remains committed to it, and the Coast Guard will continue to assert our voice and bring equities to the table in a collaborative fashion.
MR DEHART: Yeah. And we’re great supporters of the Coast Guard Forum at the State Department. Really very valuable. And so that – we want to do all we can to help keep that strong.
I guess my closing thoughts would be that when you look at most of the media reporting today on the Arctic, it’s about geopolitical competition. And there is a rising competition as the region opens up, and there are security risks that we have to attend to together with our allies. But we’re also reassured by the fact that the Arctic has strong governments, strong institutions, strong rules that keep things level, that have kept things peaceful. And the tradition in the Arctic has been peaceful cooperation. And I think it’s the absolute gold standard when you look at the scientific collaboration that takes place among Arctic states and among states from outside the Arctic as well.
So really, really strong history and patterns of cooperation. Together with the international rules that exist there, it gives us a lot of confidence that we can keep things peaceful and keep cooperation at the forefront. And so I think that will be the message, I believe, that will come out of the upcoming ministerial in Reykjavik as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. This concludes our briefing. I want to give special thanks to our two briefers for sharing their time with us today and for those of you who participated. Thank you, and good day.