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06/01/2020 | Report - The Bering Strait: A New Chokepoint for Great Power Competition

Alessandro Gagaridis

SUMMARY- Climate change has the potential to dramatically alter the geopolitical scene in the 21st century. While the phenomenon will have a worldwide impact, its effects will be particularly marked in the Arctic. As the polar ice cap melts, new maritime shipping lanes will open in the region.

 

The so-called Northern Sea Route (NSR) has the potential to become a game-changer in the world’s geopolitical order. As a matter of fact, it would be a new and much shorter connection between Eastern Asia and Europe, with huge potential implications for trade. Moreover, the Arctic is estimated to host considerable hydrocarbon deposits, which attracts the attention of powers like Russia, China, Japan and others. As the Arctic becomes an area of increased maritime traffic, energy exploitation, and possibly great power competition, the Bering Strait will gain significant strategic relevance.  Considering that it separates two rival powers in the United States and Russia, and that China would be one of the main economic beneficiaries of the NSR’s opening, it is likely that the Bering Strait will gradually be militarized moving forward.

BACKGROUND

It is widely accepted that global warming is causing the polar ice caps to melt. Apart from the considerable environmental concerns, this phenomenon also has major economic and geopolitical ramifications.

First, climate change is opening a new maritime course across the previously inaccessible Polar Circle known as Northern Sea Route (NSR), which will open new opportunities for trade between Europe and Asia. Second, it appears that the Arctic is home to huge hydrocarbon reserves, which are now being made accessible by the melting ice. Of course, drilling in the region remains extremely challenging, but as the climate warms extracting energy resources in the area will become easier. Among the great powers, China seems particularly interested in developing the Arctic. The NSR represents a shorter journey than the traditional sea lanes of communication (SLOC) crossing the Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and exploiting the Arctic’s energy resources would reduce China’s reliance on imports from the politically unstable Middle East. States like Japan and South Korea are also interested in establishing a presence around the North Pole for similar reasons.

Then there’s the region’s dominant power: Russia. As with the others, Russia wants to develop the NSR to boost its own economy (since it would benefit from the maritime traffic along its northern coast) and wants to exploit the Arctic’s energy resources in order to reinforce its position as a major oil-exporting country. But Moscow also has major security concerns in the region. As global warming opens ice-free routes in the Arctic Sea, Russia is sensitive about the movements of military vessels of competing powers next to its northern shores. In regard to monitoring and controlling access by competing powers, the Bering Strait will become an essential maritime chokepoint for Moscow.

IMPACT

The NSR and Arctic drilling are still in the very early stages. The number of cargos sailing via the NSR is still tiny compared to the traditional SLOCs. This is due to a variety of factors: required support infrastructure along Russia’s northern shores is still lacking, and a mix of environmental concerns and technical difficulties continue to slow down transport times. But as the ice cap gradually disappears and investments start to flow in, the Arctic will become more crowded and maritime traffic through the Bering Strait will increase. The Strait’s western side belongs to Russia, whereas the eastern side is the US state of Alaska. Considering the uneasy relations between the two, plus the importance that the geography will acquire for other powers (including Washington’s other main competitor, the PRC), it is clear that the Bering Strait will be a hotspot for great power competition in the future.

Keeping Bering open will be of particular concern for Moscow. First, if the NSR becomes a viable maritime route, Russia will benefit in economic terms from being the essential base for trade-related operations; keeping the Strait open will be essential for maintaining this positive economic spillover. There are also national security factors to consider. In the context of tense relations with Washington, Moscow will not want to leave the US Navy free to operate along its shores, and especially around an important chokepoint like the Bering Strait. At the same time, in a hypothetic ‘hot conflict’ scenario, geographic proximity would allow Russia to easily launch an attack on Alaska so long as Moscow controlled the Bering Strait. This would not be a decisive blow to the United States, yet it would not be completely insignificant in terms of propaganda and potentially handicapping an oil-producing US state that also hosts several military bases.

Russia seems perfectly aware of the geopolitical stakes surrounding the Bering Strait, and is being proactive in its efforts to secure ongoing access to the area. In the context of an escalating military build-up in the Arctic, Russia has conducted relevant maneuvers in close proximity to the Bering Strait. Since US attack submarines would have a fundamental role in any US attempt to block the passage, the Russian Navy recently performed anti-submarine warfare drills in the Bering Sea. Early in September, US fighters intercepted two Russian strategic bombers that were allegedly practicing airstrikes against Alaska, and the large-scale Vostok 2018 war games (which saw the participation of Chinese troops) comprised maneuvers in the Arctic, including amphibious landing operations in the Chukotka region across from Alaska.

For its part, China will also want to ensure that the Bering Strait remains open to allow for an uninterrupted flow of goods and energy supplies via the NSR. But while the Bering Strait will indeed acquire greater importance for Beijing, it will not be its primary concern – that will be found far to the south. For any cargo sailing to and from China via the NSR will have to cross the Korea Strait (dividing the Peninsula from Japan) and the La Pérouse Strait (separating the Japanese island of Hokkaidō from Russia’s Sakhalin). These will be the overriding concerns for the PRC, considering that it maintains uneasy relations with Japan, which is a close US ally and home to several US military bases. Thus. it would be very easy for the US Navy to cut China’s trade routes in those Straits and around Japan. This is not to say that the Bering Strait will be inconsequential to China. Available evidence suggests otherwise, such as its sailing of five warships across the Bering Sea in 2015 during a visit by former president Obama to Alaska.

Russia’s proximity to the Bering Strait means that Moscow’s cooperation is essential for keeping the passage secure and open. Fortunate for China, it’s also in Russia’s best interests to do so, since it would surely not appreciate having US military forces so close to its shores. Factoring in Russia’s budding strategic partnership with the PRC, in the case of a conflict between Beijing and Washington, it is reasonable to expect that Russia would support China. In fact, the possibility of involving Russia in the dispute could be enough to deter the US from blockading the Bering Strait in the first place. If anything it would severely restrict the US Navy’s freedom of operation in the region.

Finally, the US will be interested in extending its control and influence over the Bering Sea for similar reasons. In Washington’s view, controlling the area would allow it to counter China’s and Russia’s interests and to secure its own territorial integrity. However, this is a difficult endeavor given that the United States’ ability to operate in the region will be constrained by Russia’s relative graphical proximity. As such, the Bering strait will remain a contested zone between the two powers.

FORECAST

It will take years if not decades for this to happen, but as the polar ice melts, the NSR becomes more viable, and shipping in the Arctic ramps up, the Bering Strait’s geostrategic significance will grow commensurately. While it remains unlikely that Bering will completely displace Malacca as a major crossroads for international maritime trade, it is still reasonable to expect that shipping traffic will become more intense in its waters, and hydrocarbon extraction will also increase, perhaps dramatically.

As this happens, the area will also gain significance in security terms as both the US and Russia (plus China) act to secure it, albeit for different reasons. Consequently, the Strait will gradually be militarized on both sides, and the Aleutian Islands (which “enclose” the Bering Sea to the south) will also gain greater strategic relevance. In this context, it is likely that anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) military assets will be deployed by the two powers. Russia will position anti-ship missiles and air defenses to keep the US military at bay, as well as cruise missiles and bombers targeting US military and civilian infrastructures in Alaska. For its part, the US military will use similar means to ensure its ability to block the Strait and neutralize Russia’s A2/AD assets if necessary. Moreover, submarines will also be pivotal for the US, as well as air-deployable sea mines carried by bombers (to which Russia will respond with minesweepers). In other words, we’ll see a classic localized arms race as the two sides engage in a build-up on their side of the Strait.

China will keep a seat at the table by increasing naval patrols in the region. It’s clear that if Beijing wants to secure continued access to the Bering strait, it needs Moscow’s cooperation, and over time this dynamic could create problems for the PRC. So long as the strategic interests of both powers converge like they presently do, China will be able to count on Russia’s support. However, it’s far from certain that this will always be the case since there are a number of factors that could undermine the long-term health of Sino-Russian relations. As these issues start to emerge, the relationship could slowly deteriorate, and China might not be able to take Russia’s assistance for granted. Under these circumstances, access to the Bering Strait could even become an additional source of friction between the two Asian powers.

Looking ahead, the Bering Strait is strategically relevant in two ways: as a theatre in US-Russia competition, with the two powers struggling to carve out an advantageous strategic position; and secondly as a conduit for international trade, which will also make it important for Asian powers like China.

***This article was originally published on October 1, 2018.

Geopoliticalmonitor.com (Canadá)

 



 
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