As the Arctic’s value becomes more apparent and the region more accessible, several ‘near-Arctic’ states are moving to expand their polar influence. The success of China’s aggressive campaign depends on legitimizing this ‘near-Arctic’ identity. However, the People’s Republic is not the only non-Arctic state interested in the High North . The United Kingdom is building their own 21st century Arctic policy, and attempting to legitimize their identity as the region’s ‘closest neighbor’.
The Empire in the Arctic
The UK’s Arctic presence dates back to the 15th century, mostly concerned with uncovering new trade routes through to Asia.
Britain was an Arctic power until the late 1800s, when its last regional holdings were transferred to Canada. A strong British presence persisted until shortly after World War II, as a countermeasure against Germany and the Soviet Union. Since then, Britain’s observer status has rightfully limited their role in Arctic affairs.
With Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland looking for safer alternatives to Russian partnership, the UK’s regional history and strong relationships open the door to meaningful involvement.
Geostrategy and the Northern Frontier
With the end of the post Cold War world order, geostrategic competition is increasing in the High North. The United Kingdom, concerned by possible Russian militarization and lockdown of the Arctic, increasingly views the region as critical to national security.
Two-thirds of Russia’s navy docks in the Kola Peninsula near Finland and could quickly bear down on Britain from the North Sea. Accordingly, the Royal Marines undertake cold weather training in the Scottish highlands regularly.
The United Kingdom and its Scandinavian partners are pushing for a permanent NATO presence in the Arctic as a ‘tripwire’ against Sino-Russian encroachment.
Commerce and Climate Change
Britain’s capital and expertise is attractive to Arctic states and projects. As such, the United Kingdom contributes to and cooperates with several EU and American-led development and research programs.
The UK’s position between the Atlantic, the European Continent, and the Arctic will prove advantageous as they maneuver to develop fishery access, cargo ports, energy infrastructure, and the tourism industry.
Britain’s contributions to climate research are somewhat disorganized, but considered a valuable asset by regional partners.
The most significant obstacles to British success in the Arctic is the government’s lack of organization and focus. Though Britain’s Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas’ oversees the polar regions, there is no dedicated diplomat for the Arctic.
Britain’s web of investments, grants, and diplomatic commitments requires consistent and active engagement. The 2018 policy paper ‘Beyond the Ice’ presents a thorough vision for the future, largely maintaining a hands-off, conservative approach to Arctic involvement. If Britain maintains this limited engagement, they may be a positive force in Arctic affairs.
Norway, the UK’s closest Arctic ally, is wary of China and determined to move away from Russia. With Chinese investments threatening Arctic sovereignty, alternative partnerships are becoming more attractive.
With membership in the NATO umbrella and allies eager for increased British participation, Britain is poised to expand in the High North. To the extent the United Kingdom acts as a secondary partner, their contribution will be valuable. However, Arctic regional sovereignty remains essential for sustainable and secure regional development.