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