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Russia and China's renewed interest in the Arctic has implications for the UK

5 min read

Arctic waters have been the subject of great interest and activity recently, with China and Russia increasing their presence. Elisabeth Braw considers the implications for the UK and its allies

Earlier this summer, during a conference in St Petersburg, a commercial agreement was announced. It didn’t receive much attention in the UK, but it should; the agreement was a deal between the Chinese shipping company COSCO and the Russian shipping company Sovcomflot, and concerned shipping in the Arctic. Indeed, around the region commercial deals are being struck as climate change promises to make it more hospitable to trade and commerce. That has defence implications for the United Kingdom.

On the face of it, a shipping deal between one Chinese and one Russian company is no cause for concern. Neither is the Russian liquid natural gas (LNG) giant Novatek’s new deal with COSCO, which will see COSCO transporting Novatek’s LNG along the Northern Sea route; nor that China Development Bank is an investor in Novatek’s Arctic LNG project.

It may not even be overly alarming that in 2017 a Chinese company tried to buy a former military base on Greenland, where several other Chinese companies have already invested in local mining companies.

Combine such commercial moves, however, with more political decisions and a clearer picture emerges. The Chinese government, an Arctic Council observer since 2013, wants to include the Arctic Circle in its enormous new Silk Road project. In its first Arctic policy, released last year, it declared itself a “near-Arctic state”.

Russia, meanwhile, is increasing its Arctic activity. It has created a Joint Strategic Command (North), in operation since 2014. Two years ago the country inaugurated its first military icebreaker in 40 years, and last year the then secretary of state for defence told the Defence Committee’s inquiry on the Arctic that “there has been a tenfold increase in Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic”. On land, the country has rebuilt or modernised Soviet military bases along its Arctic shore, and two years ago it presented its new Trefoil military base in Franz Josef Land.

The Franz Josef Land archipelago is located near Svalbard, a demilitarised group of islands administered by Norway. Though Trefoil only houses some 150 troops, it has received enormous media attention, as have Russia’s other Arctic installations – perhaps not surprising given the photo opportunities involving soldiers clad in white, such as FSB border guards who conducted a four-day exercise at the north pole.

Svalbard, too, has lately been the subject of great interest and activity. Two years ago, after a Nato parliamentary delegation visited the archipelago’s capital of Longyearbyen, the Russian foreign ministry sensed a provocation: “Russia operates based on the premise that all the states that are party to the Spitsbergen [Svalbard] Treaty of 1920 should be interested in ensuring that Spitsbergen remains an archipelago of peace and neighbourliness”, a statement released by the ministry said. The year before, special forces from the autonomous Russian region of Chechnya had, however, landed at Svalbard en route to an exercise near the north pole.

It is, of course, possible that all the activity means nothing, that the business transactions and military revitalisation in the high north are simply a matter of infrastructure planning in response to climate change – which will, of course, transform the region as Arctic waters become passable for large-volume shipping and Arctic land regions become more inhabitable.

Just before Nato’s Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, however, Russia launched an anti-submarine exercise in the Barents Sea, and during Trident Juncture it jammed GPS signals, affecting Norwegian and Finnish civilian air traffic. Even if Nato’s member states would prefer a collaborative Arctic, the alliance and its high north member states clearly have to act, or rather, react.

Trident Juncture, which primarily took place in central Norway and off the Norwegian coast, provided an opportunity for Nato to show itself in the Arctic. It did so by means of the USS Harry S Truman Carrier Strike Group, which sailed north of the Arctic Circle. The United States, an Arctic country thanks to Alaska, seems to have woken up to the development in the Arctic, and this May, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo somewhat unexpectedly chose to participate in the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting.

The United Kingdom is, of course, not an Arctic state. But it is a high north state, and if China can call itself “near-Arctic”, so can the UK. In its 2018 Arctic report, wittily named On Thin Ice, the Defence Committee declared that “our view is that the UK and its allies should be extremely wary of Russia’s intentions in the region. It is difficult to credit that the scale and range of military capabilities being deployed by Russia in the Arctic fulfil solely defensive purposes.” The Royal Navy has since established a Joint Area of Operations for the North Atlantic, adding to previous Royal Navy activities in the high north and the Royal Marines’ cold-weather capabilities.

But responding to Russian military activities in the Arctic is the easy part. What about China’s Arctic Silk Road branch? Chinese and Russian companies’ strategic investments and joint ventures in the region? On the face of it, commercial transactions are justifiable; in a geopolitically changing region they are, however, not just about commerce.

The fast-expanding business activities present the UK and its allies with a novel headache: should they respond? And if so, how? Can the commercial deals in the Arctic in the longer run exclude UK companies – and the UK government – from their legitimate rights in the increasingly important region? In an age of hybrid warfare, aggression comes in many shapes, including commercial ones.

Elisabeth Braw is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

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