Britain’s Arctic Conundrum (Part 2): Great Powers and Naval Gazing

Zeno Leoni and Duraid Jalili, both Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

It remains to be seen whether the most pronounced effects of global warming – the melting of ice caps in the Arctic, for instance – will serve as a wake-up call for ambitious multilateral action or as an opportunity to exploit new resources for strategic advantage

Børge Brende, President, World Economic Forum

The prospect of a Wider North that brings together the countries of the Arctic, North Atlantic, Scandinavian and Baltic regions is of clear value to a post-Brexit Britain seeking to generate new economic opportunities. Yet, the ability for the United Kingdom to achieve its goals must be understood in the context of great power competition across new realms of geopolitics, such as the Arctic. Indeed, talking at the 2019 Arctic Council summit in Finland, the US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo stated that the Arctic is becoming ‘an arena of global power and competition’. This emerging regional contest between certain powers represents a significant conundrum for Britain’s Arctic ambitions.

Britain’s naval gazing at the Arctic

The unexplored nature of new realms of geopolitics such as the Arctic generates unique opportunities and challenges for nations that wish to use such realms to their advantage. Most notably, they provide not just economic opportunities but also opportunities to research, develop and test new technologies that can allow one nation to rapidly leapfrog another in military and/or economic terms. For secondary global powers such as Britain, with a relatively strong armed forces but limited capacity to outspend its larger global rivals, this can make the Arctic a tantalising prospect.

The fact that naval power is liable to play a critical role in maintaining security and commerce within the new Arctic realm represents in itself a clarion call for the broadly traditionalist British political elites currently seeking to re-imagine and re-assert the principle of a Global Britain. Almost inevitably, therefore, as seen in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office document, Beyond the Ice: UK policy towards the Arctic (2018), the government has sought to increase its ambition and allocation of resources for both the security threats and economic opportunities presented by the Arctic. Specifically, over the last decade the UK has shifted away from neglecting the Arctic or viewing it purely through an environmental lens, and instead has moved further towards a more militarised or hard power conception of regional security.

This shift is already evidenced by the fact that the 800 Royal Marines who normally undertake cold-weather training in Norway on an annual basis have now been joined in the Arctic region by an upcoming deployment of four RAF Typhoons to patrol Icelandic skies as part of NATO-sponsored operations. The ability to provide a strong naval response to Russian encroachment in particular is also likely to be enhanced through the government’s recent investment of an additional £16.5 billion in UK defence. As noted by Professor Greg Kennedy from King’s College London, this surprising announcement will help with ‘improving the diminished surface warfare capability of the Royal Navy Fleet’ by adding Type 26 and five Type 31 frigates and support ships along with F-35 Lightning aircraft to make the Carrier Strike Group ‘more credible’.

Despite these actions, there exists no clear overarching Arctic defence strategy as of yet. Although this may be rectified in the upcoming Integrated Review of the UK’s defence and security stance, the current lack of a clear strategic vision is surprising given the fact that China and Russia’s respective strategies for the region are fairly clear. Specifically, their respective approaches reflect their wider global postures, with Russia playing a more explicitly military game, China leveraging its economic power and both nations remaining open to mutually beneficial cooperation with each other.

China’s Arctic ambitions

China’s recent activities in the Arctic indicate an attempt to find a role or foothold in the evolving geopolitics of the region. In his keynote speech at the Third Arctic Circle Assembly, Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Ming argued that, particularly due to the effects of climate change, China is a ‘major stakeholder in the Arctic’. Yet China’s attempts to become a permanent observer in the Arctic Council were still hotly debated. Indeed, in achieving observer status, Chinese officials had to distance themselves from previous statements that the Arctic represented a ‘global common’.

China’s stated climate change agenda aligns with its increasing involvement in bi-lateral and multi-lateral Arctic research initiatives, such as the International Arctic Science Committee, the Asian Forum for Polar Sciences and the China Nordic Arctic Research Centre. In principle, China’s focus on such activities bodes well for the UK, particularly if successive British governments seek to take a more proactive and far-reaching approach to environmental diplomacy. China’s environmental activities, however, are accompanied by attempts to secure future economic advantages, particularly in relation to the ‘Polar Silk Road’ vision announced in China’s 2018 Arctic policy white paper. Most notably, increased access to Arctic shipping lanes would provide China with quicker and cheaper means of transporting goods to Western Europe.

This vision has already resulted in multiple points of access to the Arctic for China. For example, it has commissioned various ice-capable assets to increase shipping access, although its current capacity is restricted to two icebreakers with limited manoeuvrability (the Xuelong and Xuelong 2). Furthermore, as noted by the Royal United Services Institute, China’s ‘research’ stations in Iceland are supported by a ‘disproportionately large embassy’ that could be used to enhance access to mineral deposits and emerging economic opportunities in Greenland as well as geothermal energy opportunities in Iceland. The United States Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategic Outlook and the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress on China’s military power also note that China is actively pursuing the development of infrastructures such as ports, undersea cables, and airports in the Arctic.

The context of the new US-China ‘Cold War’ has meant that China’s current Arctic posture is seen as threatening by various US political figures (particularly former Secretary of Defense, James Mattis). This has led to a growing policy emphasis on the Arctic as a site of conflict, marking a shift from the inertia of US Arctic policy under the Obama and Trump administrations. For example, due to concerns that Chinese investments might embolden the local population and the politicians of Greenland to pursue national independence, Denmark has been pressured to allocate more funds to upgrade local facilities. The US is also redeploying around 100 F-22 and F-35 jetfighters to Alaska to help with deterrence and patrolling (which has hitherto been the responsibility of the overstretched US Coast Guard). This increasing US emphasis on the Arctic as a site of conflict presents a challenge to Britain post-Brexit. Specifically, it will need to chart a careful course between supporting the US’s position, thus maintaining the ‘special relationship’, whilst also supporting China’s economic goals, as a means of enhancing the image and trade prospects of Global Britain.

Russia’s Arctic militarization: offence or defence?

In comparison to China, the threat posed by Russia in the Arctic is distinctly military in nature. Russia possesses the largest Arctic border, spanning from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic. It also remains the regional superpower from a military perspective. Its possession of fifty icebreakers (in comparison to the US’s reported two) enables it to enforce claims that the Northern Sea Route is an internal waterway rather than international waters. It has even sought to establish recent transit protocols, which demand that ships navigating these sea lanes host a Russian pilot or face their access being refuted. In recent years, Russia has also taken steps to militarize the Northern Sea Route. This includes the establishing of six military installations with the capacity to launch interdiction, intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities.

Questions over whether this militarization represents a threat to other Arctic nations, however, rest on whether the Russian posture is seen as defensive or offensive in nature. One interpretation is that Russia’s actions in the Arctic are coherent with their strategy in Eastern Europe, creating an ‘offensive’ posture to defend against NATO and maintaining a buffer zone to enhance denial capabilities and manoeuvrability. This interpretation may have pockets of traction in British policymaking circles. Indeed, a key report from the prestigious British think-tank Chatham House argues that Russia is essentially seeking to build a ‘forward line of defence’ and to maintain access to the Northern Sea Route for its Northern Fleet as the Arctic becomes more crowded.

In principle, this approach would help Russia to access economic opportunities as well as providing a defence perimeter up to the Kola Peninsula, which would enable second-strike nuclear assets to survive a first strike. Even accounting for such an interpretation, Western policymakers must acknowledge that Russia’s military presence in the Arctic allows a beachhead onto the North Atlantic Ocean. This requires continuous surveillance and evaluation, particularly given reports of frequent encounters between NATO-operated and Russian vessels in the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Furthermore, the growth of different military assets and installations in this arena heightens the classic risk of strategic miscalculation and escalation.

In theory, a concerted UK MoD naval approach could indeed help to impede Russian military encroachment in the Norwegian and North Seas (especially if implemented in coordination with the US and Norway). In providing this support mechanism, Britain could also re-establish and enhance its strategic value for the US after its lamented (in Washington) departure from the EU. If it does engage with the Arctic conundrum, however, the Integrated Review must avoid what Depledge, Dodds and Kennedy-Pipe call a ‘rejuvenation’ of ‘colourful memories of the Cold War’, given that the threats posed in the Arctic arena are those of a multi-polar order, populated by a ‘plethora of new actors and interests’.

A dual threat?

To assess the balance of power in the Arctic, the ambiguous cooperation that exists between Moscow and Beijing must also be accounted for. Military analysts in Russia, for example, have advocated for Sino-Russian joint military programmes in the Arctic. Yet it remains unclear to what extent China and Russia will be able to agree upon common ground within the Arctic. For instance, China has provided 30% of the investment for Yamal LNG, a Russian gas plant based in the Arctic Ocean. This move helps the Chinese government to challenge growing US hegemony in the LNG trade as well as reducing their national reliance on Gulf energy sources; particularly if new Arctic sea-lanes reduce transit times.

Although this specific partnership is functional, China is liable to remain cautious in pushing Russia towards a more aggressive posture in the Arctic, for fear that an overly ambitious Russia could destabilise the region. Such destabilisation would negatively impact China’s own goals for research, exploitation of natural resources and the speeding up of trade transits. Although China has not directly questioned Russian military interests in the Arctic, in the short- to medium-term it will likely continue to endorse international rule-of-law whilst playing a hedging strategy with Moscow.

As these ambiguous contexts indicate, similar to other regions such as the Gulf and the Indo-Pacific, the role of the Arctic is being affected by the changing global balance of power and, in particular, the challenge to the status quo of the Liberal International Order posed by Russia and China. Climate change will continue to exacerbate the nature of this new realm as a site of tension and conflict, including in ways that may be wholly unexpected. In theory, London’s grand strategic shift encapsulated in the concept of Global Britain could provide the UK with the flexibility to engage regional actors, thus intensifying cooperation under existing frameworks and developing new partnerships. In practice, however, facing the challenges described in this blog requires Global Britain to be more than a slogan and to translate as soon as possible into operational guidelines and means. 

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