Blog: UK has Arctic on radar in national maritime security strategy

From the White Cliffs of Dover to the Great White North. Photo taken while crossing the English Channel, 2012. (Mia Bennett)
From the White Cliffs of Dover to the Great White North. Photo taken while crossing the English Channel, 2012. (Mia Bennett)
The United Kingdom is a country with longstanding interests in the Arctic.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English whalers regularly made the trip to Svalbard to hunt cetaceans. Explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and John Franklin explored the polar regions, some more successfully than others. In Antarctica, Englishman Captain Robert F. Scott famously – heartbreakingly, to many of his compatriots – lost the race to the South Pole to Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1912. Today, English adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes attempts to carry the last torch of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration.

More contemporarily, the UK has also been an observer state in the Arctic Council since its formalization in 1996. The country has major research centers into the Arctic and Antarctic and plans to construct a new £200 million icebreaker. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s Polar Regions Department released an updated national policy towards the Arctic last year. It should thus come as no surprise that the Arctic is on the radar of the latest UK National Maritime Strategy for Maritime Security, released May 13.

The strategy’s first objective is to “promote a secure international maritime domain and uphold international maritime norms.” This involves actively ensuring freedom of navigation, along with “unimpeded lawful commerce.” The UK is both an island and a major maritime nation with a historically important navy and a vital interest in seaborne trade now and in the future. As the foreword explains, “Almost every aspect of our national life depends on our connections to the wider world, and most of these connections are provided by the sea.”

Horizon scanning

To maintain its presence on the seas and the continued health of the national economy, the government must therefore engage in what it calls long-term horizon scanning. The strategy lists one area which horizon scanning has identified as “critical to the UK’s national interests”: the Arctic. The first justification given is that 29% of energy consumed in the UK comes from Norway. This justification is misleading, however, because all of the energy that the UK imports from Norway comes from the North Sea, the same sea from which Scotland extracts oil and gas, and the Norwegian Sea – not the Arctic Ocean. The Barents Sea, which contains Norway’s active fields north of the Arctic Circle, is, in the words of the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate, “an immature petroleum province.”

Geographic conundrums aside, the UK still has a true interest in the Arctic when it comes to the region’s shipping lanes. The strategy states:

“Over the next 20 years, the impact of climate change will mean that previously impassable navigational routes, notably the North West Passage, Transpolar Route and Northern Sea Route will be open for longer periods. The latter of these reduces the sailing distance between Felixstowe (the UK’s busiest container port) and Busan in Korea from 10,700 to 7,400 nm. This presents the UK with both opportunities for responsible commercial exploitation, and potential new maritime security threats. International cooperation, particularly through the Arctic Council, on which the UK has observer status, and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, of which the UK is a member, will be an essential means of managing these significant developments.”

Potential security threats

It’s not quite clear what new maritime security threats the UK could face given increased shipping along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Felixstowe may be 3,300 nm closer to Busan via the Northern Sea Route, yet it’s still well over 1,000 nm to Hammerfest, at the very top of Norway, and even farther to Murmansk. Professor Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia has named terrorism, illegal migration, and drug trafficking as possible threats to Canada due to increased shipping along the Northwest Passage. But for the UK, these threats are much more likely to come via the thousands of planes landing daily at airports across the island, the buses and cars sailing on the ferries crossing the English Channel, and the trains rocketing under it. Not from one of the mere 71 ships that sailed the NSR last year.

To manage developments regarding maritime navigation in the Arctic, the UK’s National Strategy for Maritime Security notes the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) as an important forum. While the Arctic Council’s permanent members include the countries with territory north of the Arctic Circle – the U.S., Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia – the ASFR has wider participation. At its last meeting in 2013, attendees hailed from the U.S., Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the UK. As the ASFR meets biannually to maintain maritime readiness and among its members, those participating in the group understand that countries working together is more effective than any one country operating in the Arctic by itself, allowing the UK to perhaps participate on more equal terms than it can in the Arctic Council, where as an observer, it lacks any decision-making powers.

Significance of NSR

The strategy also lists the vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes for the UK. They include “the Dover Strait, North Channel, Irish Sea and the Pentland Firth; a southern corridor, connecting the Straits of Gibraltar with the Gulf of Suez, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. An eastern corridor, stretching from the East and South China Seas through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean; and a western corridor connecting Europe with the Americas.” Most relevant to the Arctic, though is how “the opening of the Northern Sea Route, running along the Russian Arctic coast and into the Pacific may take on similar geo-strategic significance for the UK in the medium term.”

The UK Policy Towards the Arctic determined that the “UK ports and shipping industry, together with the wider UK maritime cluster, are generally well placed to take advantage of any commercial opportunities that expansion of Arctic shipping may present in the short term.” As such, the NSR could take on not just geo-strategic significance for the UK, but also geo-economic significance. Highlighted in that policy was the government’s intention to promote the “UK as a centre of commercial expertise with direct relevance to many industries that are growing in the Arctic,” including shipping and oil and gas. The Guardian interpreted this to mean that the UK is aiming to become a hub for Arctic oil exploration.

Hub or not for Arctic activities, the UK very much wants to be an important spoke within Arctic (and Asian) shipping networks. Notably, the maritime strategy makes clear the fact that the NSR feeds into the Pacific Ocean. Britain is not so much interested in the NSR for its connections to Russia as it is for its connections to Asia. Felixstowe opened a new deep water terminal in 2011, allowing the port to receive more of the large container ships sailing from Asia to Europe. That same year, a deep water track was discovered in the NSR. Of course, the NSR is still only open to shipping for a few months out of the year, and even then, Russia requires that all ships have icebreaker escorts. The bulk of NSR transit also consists of tankers moving energy supplies rather than vessels moving general cargo. It was only last year that the first container ship, state-owned Chinese shipping company COSCO’s Yong Sheng, sailed the NSR.

Developments closer to home affect the UK’s position vis-a-vis northern maritime trade routes as well. Yong Sheng delivered its cargo not to the UK, but rather to the Netherlands, just as Gazprom’s Mikhail Ulyanov, the tanker carrying the first barrels of Russian Arctic oil, did last month. In 2010, the Netherlands surpassed the UK in terms of total sea port freight traffic (Eurostat, 2012). As part of the UK’s long-term horizon scanning, to take advantage of the interlinked shipping developments in the Arctic and Asia, it might want to keep the nearby Netherlands just as much in its sights as the distant North Pole. Such an outlook will help the UK to best position itself as it seeks to maintain maritime strength from the White Cliffs of Dover to the Great White North.

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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