COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - China's military is increasingly using scientific research in the Arctic as a way into the region, a Danish intelligence service said on Friday, as it warned of intensifying geopolitical rivalry in the Earth's freezing North.
Disputes in the Arctic over global warming and access to minerals broke into the open in May when U.S. Secretary Mike Pompeo accused Russia of aggressive behaviour in the polar region and said China's actions must be watched closely.
"A great power play is shaping up between Russia, the United States and China, which is increasing the level of tension in the (Arctic) region," the Defence Intelligence Service said in its annual risk assessment report.
China, which defines itself as a 'near-Arctic state', has an ambition to gain greater access to untapped resources and faster trade through the Northern Sea Route.
In 2017, Beijing included Arctic sea routes in its so-called Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to strengthen China's ties to the rest of the world through infrastructure projects and research.
China has in recent years invested heavily in Arctic research. But Danish Defence Intelligence Service chief Lars Findsen said on Friday that Chinese research expeditions in the Arctic are not just a matter of science but serve a "dual purpose."
"We have looked at Chinese research activities in the Arctic, and see that the Chinese military is showing an increasing interest in being part of that," he said.
Findsen declined to name specific research expeditions involving the Chinese military, but said examples in recent years signalled a "new development".
"It is likely that a part of China's build-up of knowledge about the Arctic and capacity to operate in the Arctic will take place in a collaboration between civilian and military actors," the report said.
Denmark has made it a priority to maintain the Arctic as an area of international cooperation and resolve any potential issues through political negotiations between countries with Arctic territory. Greenland, a vast island straddling the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, is a self-ruling part of Denmark.
But Denmark's goal has become harder to achieve as Russia in particular is strengthening its military capabilities there, the intelligence report said.
"This is an essential driving force for several other Arctic coastal states starting to strengthen their (own) regional military capabilities," it said.
The report also said a new U.S. Arctic strategy published in June this year combined with public comments from high level government and defence officials, have also contributed to heightened tension in the region.
Increased U.S. interest in the Arctic became apparent in August when President Donald Trump suggested buying Greenland from Denmark, an idea quickly dismissed by the Danish and regional Greenland governments.
(Reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)