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The UK's northern frontier requires innovative cost-effective solutions

The Arctic is the UK’s northern frontier. Stability here is fundamental if the UK wishes to meaningfully project power and influence globally; you cannot make the most of an “Indo-Pacific tilt” if you must focus on disturbances in what is your backyard. This backyard, however, is becoming very disturbed indeed.

Russia is now a direct threat, immediately pulling almost half the Arctic into contestation with NATO. Expansive Russian seabed claims, militarisation, potential “grey zone”-related mischief in Svalbard, and Moscow’s claim to sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route become increasingly pressing as one Arctic becomes two.

Meanwhile, the Arctic is warming 3-4x faster than the global average, facilitating the opening up of the region to wider economic opportunities that are of interest globally. Exploiting this opening-up circularly feeds back into Arctic warming.

This opening has seen China significantly upscale its Arctic involvement. In 2018 it officially dubbed itself a “Near Arctic State”, building on its 2011 commitment to become a “Great Polar Power”. It has invested over $90 billion across the Arctic Circle, accounting for a quarter of all Arctic investment. Beijing also seemingly wants to shift Arctic governance towards better accounting for non-Arctic state interests.

While Beijing has legitimate reasons to be interested in the Arctic courtesy of climate change impacting its security, there are also, however, significant causes for concern. Beijing’s strategy of Military-Civil Fusion and the potentially dual-use nature of its Arctic investments have been rightly ringing alarm bells. Greatest hits include the attempted purchase of 0.3% of Iceland for a “golf resort”, where golf was unplayable but an airfield planned, and an old naval base in Greenland.

This is in a context where some estimates state that 2030 will see ice-free summer Arctic routes emerge offering faster shipping from Asia to Europe than the Suez Canal, with Britain a key gateway. The current Chief of the Defence Staff rightly warned in 2020 that such routes could facilitate Chinese power projection into the Atlantic. Chinese-owned Arctic infrastructure potentially helps facilitate this.

Beyond China, there's a rise in Arctic interest from countries like Brazil, India, and Saudi Arabia which balance their relations between the West and Russia. This increases the region’s monitoring and engagement burden for the UK amid growing global geopolitical competition. The need to successively allocate more resources across political, economic, security, and defence domains to the Arctic will increase over the decade, jostling with wider UK capacity and budgetary constraints.

To try and limit the resource need while managing an increasingly complex picture in a region with fewer international governance rules than space requires creative thinking.

To try and limit the resource need while managing an increasingly complex picture in a region with fewer international governance rules than space requires creative thinking. Quote

Transparent multilateral or international mechanisms are needed to foster confidence between Arctic and Arctic-interested states that reduce the opportunity for misunderstanding or nefarious activity (in at least the Non-Russian Arctic). These mechanisms should acknowledge the legitimate interests of states like China while bolstering Arctic states' rights through developing a sovereign-centric security-related governance framework, filling the geopolitical-sized hole in Arctic Council coverage. Furthermore, they should prioritise environmentally sustainable engagement to preserve the Arctic environment, a goal shared publicly by all stakeholders.

One potential mechanism might resemble the UN-backed "Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries" (REDD+) framework where wealthier states compensate others for forest protection; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and incentivising stewardship as a sustainable economic alternative to industrial-scale forest exploitation.

An Arctic adaptation could involve non-Arctic investors, mandated by mutual agreement among Arctic states, required to commit annual contributions to an Arctic Council-administered and UN-legitimised fund. The cost is based on a project's environmental impact, with lower contributions for sustainable ventures, promoting their adoption. Mandated project reporting via the Arctic Council would ensure accountability.

This mechanism aims to enhance transparency, monitor geopolitically-sensitive activity, and promote eco-friendly projects without impeding overall investment. It helps nudge norms of external Arctic investment towards global climate goals shared with states like China, while reinforcing Arctic state sovereignty. Funds would be allotted to Arctic states, earmarked for projects like sustainable development or nature reserves.

The UK is well-positioned among Arctic-interested states to champion this due to its green credentials, international clout, and Arctic state-supportive strategy. Furthermore, it aligns with the UK's integrated approach to security, addressing Arctic escalation and climate change and reflects the UK's simultaneous competitor-partner approach to China, facilitating fair and transparent Arctic investment that discourages heavy dual-use infrastructure projects.

Such a mechanism serves as a small but feasible step towards cost-effectively quieting Britain’s backyard and allowing the focusing of resources on looming geopolitical problems presented by the Russian Arctic.

Samuel Jardine Headshot

Samuel Jardine is an experienced geopolitical consultant specialising in strategic competition, space, the polar regions, and the seabed. He is the Head of Research at London Politica, a Senior Advisor at Luminint, a Research Fellow at the Foresight Institute, and a Research Associate of the Climate Change & (In)Security Project.

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