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Spotlight on the Northern Sea Route, NATO, the US, and China

Series: The Spotlight, Part 1 – The geopolitical and military Implications

Our thanks to Nat South, the author


The Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic is gaining increased interest as a shipping lane by China and other countries due to its potential as a faster and cheaper alternative to traditional shipping lanes. China’s interest in the Arctic is not only commercial but also part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand its economic reach globally. However, this increasing involvement in the Arctic by China is seen as a security threat by the US, NATO, and its allies. There is growing concern among NATO Arctic states about the potential for conflict in the region due to increased competition in the resource-rich Arctic and over shipping lanes. The US has historically been a dominant naval power, and its increased focus on the Arctic is evidenced by the Navy’s plans to increase its presence and capabilities in the region.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is an Arctic shipping lane that connects Europe and Asia. The route starts from the Kara Sea, located in the west of Russia’s Arctic region, and ends at the Bering Strait, which separates Russia from Alaska. The Russian government takes responsibility for regulating and managing the NSR, including providing icebreaker escorts, search and rescue operations, and maintaining navigation aids along the route.

It’s worth noting that the NSR is partially open for a portion of the year due to ice conditions, typically from around June to November. Despite this, the influence, as well as the role of the NSR has come under the spotlight by the US and NATO in recent years, due to a growing interest in the route and wider region as a potentially faster and cheaper alternative to traditional shipping lanes.

Although China is not considered as a ‘near-Arctic’ state in the traditional sense, it has increased its presence, by investing mostly in commercial, shipping, resource development and in scientific areas. One notable example is the Yamal LNG project, that is continuing to expand since 2017, [1]  This is a joint venture between Novatek, a Russian natural gas company, and several international partners, including Total, CNPC, and the Silk Road Fund. The project involves the development of natural gas fields in the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Siberia. Specialised ice-strengthened liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers have shipped LNG to Asia for several years, principally on the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

Consequently, the development of the NSR as a viable shipping route also has implications for Russia’s strategic interests in the region, as it seeks to establish itself as a key player in Arctic shipping and promote economic development in the region. The increased use of the NSR by Chinese shipping and interests could potentially strengthen Russia’s position and increase its influence in the region.

China published in 2018 a White Paper on an Arctic strategy, in which there is the Polar Silk Road, (which includes a maritime element), as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI).

The document acknowledged China’s status as a “distant” Arctic stakeholder and recognises the importance of the NSR as a potential shipping route and calls for international cooperation to ensure that it is developed in a safe and sustainable manner.

China sees the development of the Polar Silk Road as an opportunity to expand its economic reach and to promote its economic interests globally.  As already briefly mentioned, China made investments in Arctic infrastructure, including ports, shipping companies, and energy projects, as part of the BRI.

An illustration of how China is viewing the Arctic and the NSR is that of China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), which has used the NSR many times since it first went along in 2013. COSCO reportedly sent more than 60 vessels through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in 2018, compared to just a handful in previous years. Moreover, COSCO jointly operates Yamal LNG tankers with SOVCOMFLOT.

The increased Chinese involvement in the Arctic hasn’t gone unnoticed by either the US, NATO, or the EU.  This has predictably morphed into “security concerns” about the implications of Chinese and Russian expansion in the Arctic.  Suffice to say that the increasing presence of China in the region is seen as a threat.

It has to be noted that segments of US political and military policy are shaped by the Mahan doctrine.  This is a concept in international relations that emphasizes the importance of sea power and the control of maritime chokepoints in securing national interests. The US has historically been a dominant naval power and has maintained a strong military presence in key maritime chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz, which are vitally important for global trade.

Conversely, the use of the NSR also raises concerns for the US, NATO, and its allies, as it could challenge their traditional dominance of the US in the maritime sphere and potentially alter the balance of power in the region.  Ominously, in 2021, the US Navy updated a  strategic document, `A Blue Arctic´, (first published in 2014). Essentially, this is a blueprint for how the US Navy can maintain and protect its interests in the Arctic in the face of Russia and China as competitors. To put more bluntly, how the US can keep it hegemonic state in the Arctic with the help of other allied Arctic nations.  The document outlines the Navy’s plans to increase its presence and capabilities in the region, including the development of new ice-hardened ships, the expansion of undersea warfare capabilities, and the establishment of new training facilities.

In the last five years or so, there has been a perceptible shift in US, NATO resources, training, and doctrine in focusing more to what is termed as the “High North”.  Primarily, there is a growing concern among NATO Arctic states and other actors about the potential for conflict in the region due to increased competition in the resource-rich Arctic and more visibly, also over shipping lanes.

Paradoxically, the NSR shipping lane has itself mini maritime chokepoints, within Russia’s 12-mile territorial sea or between territorial islands.  Additionally, Russia has restricted certain types of shipping on the NSR, notably military ships.  Russia applies UNCLOS, in particular, Article 234, pertaining to national jurisdiction of coastal states in ice-covered areas (including EEZs), as an integral element of maintaining control of the NSR.  All of which has attracted the ire of both the US and NATO member states, over the interpretation and application of key UNCLOS clauses.

Just reading the preamble of the 2021 NATO document entitled, “Regional Perspectives Report on the Arctic” shows the main drivers for increased activities in the region, with Russia and China under NATO’s spotlight, to gain a better (in NATO parlance), “understanding of both Russia and China’s strategic and economic approach to the Arctic”. [2] Plainly put, to study what Russia and China are doing and planning to do economically and militarily in the Arctic.  “Governance of the Arctic will remain critical”, but only if the US and NATO can strive to be the key drivers, otherwise as in NATO’s General Lanata’s own words “failure to do so has potential implications for both Euro-Atlantic and global security”.

However, a lot of this isn’t quite what it seems at first sight, ‘governance’ implying US-led governance to the total detriment of Russian and Chinese interests and security concerns. Implicitly, the US and NATO want unimpeded access to the Arctic, using the UN Law of the Sea as the means in which to counter Russian jurisdictional control of the NSR.

In reality, NATO and the US are determined:

a)  to secure “Sea lines of communication” (SLOC) in the region.

b)  to have increased maritime situational awareness.

The US and NATO have stated unabashedly that there is need to maintain freedom of navigation in the Arctic, which is becoming increasingly important as new shipping routes open up. The flip side of “freedom of navigation”, (FoN), is in fact securing SLOCs and having better maritime situational awareness. To a certain extent, this also includes parts of the NSR that is outside of Russian territorial waters. Obviously, Russia isn’t keen on having either the US navy or NATO member naval ships on its doorstep.

Undeniably, the Arctic, militarily is a vantage point for NATO because it provides potential access to areas from where it is possible to launch attacks on Russia and China. This has certainly been the case since the Cold War in relation to the USSR, and one reason why the USSR developed its naval “Bastion” concept during the Cold War. [3] The term “High North” is ambiguous, but it does include areas deemed to be of strategic importance such as the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GIUK) gap and Svalbard.

Set against the growing tensions due to Ukraine and now the increasing shifting in hostility towards China; NATO and the US, as the kingpins of “the international system” or “the international rules-based order” are feeling somewhat “increasingly strained” [2].  “The growing importance of the region, mainly due to Russian and Chinese interests, requires NATO to adapt to a new security environment.“[2]

What does this emerging “security environment” look like? NATO and the US have deployed significant military capabilities in the Arctic, including submarines, surface vessel fleets, special forces, sent strategic bombers to Norway and an aircraft carrier to Alaska. These capabilities are being constantly evolved since they are also limited by the harsh environmental conditions and hampered by the lack of infrastructure in the region. Nevertheless, it allows them to project power and have the capability to respond to potential designated threats in the region. The US Navy has conducted several operations in the Arctic since 2014, including the deployment of submarines and surface vessels, as well as taking part in joint exercises with other Arctic states. The US Navy re-established in 2018, the Second Fleet, as part of the US Navy’s effort to increase its presence and capabilities in the North Atlantic region. Its area of responsibility includes the Arctic region.

NATO is also steadily increasing its presence in the region, not just through only exercises but it also established a new Joint Force Command in the region in 2019.  Major NATO exercises such as “Exercise Trident Juncture” held in 2018 and “Exercise Cold Response” held biannually, testify to the increased overt presence in the near-Arctic as well as the Arctic.

In contrast, NATO notes “China is pursuing an increased regional presence [in the Arctic] includes icebreakers, research platforms, shipping vessels (COSCO) and potentially Chinese submarine activity.”[2].  No regular major exercises, no dedicated naval Fleet, just unassumingly, some government ships, with potentially a submarine or two that might have made a rare foray into Arctic, probably mentioned in passing to ramp up the fear factor. The only noteworthy aspect is the Chinese commercial use of the NSR has increased significantly in recent years, reflecting growing interest in the route as a possible alternative to the traditional shipping lanes.

It remains to be seen as to how viable the NSR is due to cost, unpredictable weather, and variable sea-ice conditions, and also due to application strict regulations to ships that transit it.  In 2019, a number of Western shipping companies, including the French shipping company CMA CGM, announced that they will not use the NSR, ostensibly due to environmental and financial concerns, although it would be not surprising if there wasn’t a unfavourable political aspect too. The start of the Russian Special Military Operation in Ukraine will have consolidated this political stance.

The use of the NSR by China in particular, could potentially strengthen Russia’s position and increase its influence in the region. By using the NSR, China could potentially reduce its reliance on these traditional shipping routes and bypass the maritime chokepoints dominated or controlled by the US. This would allow China to have greater control over its shipping lanes and reduce its vulnerability to potential disruptions or blockades by the US or its allies.

The Arctic region is witnessing a shift in geopolitical interests, with some increased focus on the Northern Sea Route and the potential for resource exploitation. China’s growing involvement in the Arctic is seen as a disturbing threat to the traditional dominance of the US and its allies in the maritime sphere. This has led to increased focus and resources by both the US and NATO in the Arctic, thereby feeding into a cycle of increasing further tensions with Russia in the Arctic.  The worldwide quest to maintain US hegemony and interests is eventually amplifying geopolitical tensions and competition between the US-led EU, NATO block with Russia and China.

[1] Yamal LNG

[2] NATO, 2021

[3] The Bastion concept


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11 months ago

Great article, thank you for insight into importance of northern sea route