The Xue Long icebreaker made made China's first circumnavigation of the Arctic in 2017. Photo: Bahnfrend

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted in Washington, D.C. earlier this week that the US has fallen behind nations such as Russia and China in engaging the Arctic region and needs to catch up.

Tillerson reportedly acknowledged at an event at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Tuesday that the Arctic is becoming increasingly important from a geopolitical and economic standpoint.

“The Russians made it a strategic priority,” Tillerson said. “Even the Chinese are building icebreaking tankers.”

Though China isn’t an Arctic littoral state, he noted, “they see the value of these passages. So we’re late to the game.”

Tillerson pointed to the US’s limited polar ice-breaking capability as a chief example of US weakness in the Arctic.

“I think we have one functioning icebreaker today. The Coast Guard’s very proud of it … as crummy as it is,” news website Arctic Now reported Tillerson as saying.

The Xue Long, a Chinese civilian icebreaker, completed China’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic this summer.

The US Coast Guard has asked Congress for money to build six new icebreakers as part of forthcoming budget appropriations.