As the Polar ice cap melts, new shipping lanes are opening across the Arctic. Navigation in the area is still in its initial stages, but in the long term it has the potential to transform international maritime trade and to profoundly affect the geopolitical scene. In particular, if this happens, new chokepoints will take a central strategic importance: the Bering Strait and the North Atlantic passages.
The four Arctic routes
The idea of reaching the Pacific Ocean by navigating through the Arctic is not new. centuries ago, explorers risked their lives to find the fabled Northwest Passage. It sails north of Canada and then crosses the Bering Strait to arrive in the Pacific, and it is the first of the possible Arctic Routes. The second one is the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, which is the most debated today. Starting from the Pacific Ocean, it passes through Bering and proceeds along Russia’s northern coasts towards Europe. Then, there are two other options: the least important is the Arctic Bridge, which connects Northern Europe with Canada; the other is the Transpolar Sea Route, that crosses the centre of the Arctic Ocean instead of passing along the coasts like the NSR does. While this is theoretically possible, in practice this area is still covered in ice and therefore it will become navigable only if the Polar cap disappears almost completely.
For centuries, the Arctic ice cap made it impossible to sail across these frozen waters during most of the year, but things are different today. Global warming is dissolving the Arctic’s ice, and this is opening these passages to navigation for increasingly long periods. As a result, the NSR and the Northwest Passage are becoming commercially viable, something this could radically change the world’s maritime trade patterns. The reason is that such lanes are way shorter, and therefore time- and money-saving, than the traditional ones passing through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is why more and more ships are already using these lanes and the NSR in particular, even though the trade volume remains only a tiny fraction of the one flowing along the ordinary seaways. But apart from merely economic considerations, Arctic lanes present other geostrategic advantages for the various powers that are interested in their development.
Why the Arctic?
The first country that wants to develop the NSR and Arctic trade in general is Russia. As a matter of fact, Russia is the region’s prominent power: first, because most of the coast around the Arctic belongs to it, and then because of its unrivalled fleet of ice-breakers and of the military forces it has deployed there. Moscow considers the NSR as an excellent opportunity to develop its northernmost territories and ports by providing logistic support to the ships sailing across these waters. Moreover, the Arctic also hosts large oil and gas reserves, which would further strengthen Russia’s stance as a world-class energy supplier. Of course, such projects are technically challenging due to the rigid climate and they require huge investments to develop the necessary infrastructure, but Russia is already working on it; and most importantly it can cooperate with other powers that want to open such routes and access the Arctic’s resources.
As a matter of fact, many Asian countries are also interested in the Arctic. Among them, the most important is certainly China, who is already operating in the region. There are three reasons behind its interest. First, gaining access alternative hydrocarbon sources and reduce its reliance on the Middle East. Second, opening a faster and cheaper shipping lane to Europe and to America’s East coast. The third reason is geostrategic, and it is closely related to the others. Beijing is engaged in a great power competition with Washington, and the traditional southern routes it currently uses for trade with Europe could easily be cut by the US Navy in case of war; something that would compromise its economy and its energy security. Chokepoints like the straits of Malacca, Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb and Suez are particularly vulnerable.
Similar considerations are at the base of Japan’s and South Korea’s presence in the Arctic. However, in their case the security dimension is different: they fear that China, or a Sino-American war, may disrupt trade along the traditional routes; and because of this they want to open the alternative seaway to Europe.
But will the NSR actually solve their strategic problem?
The new chokepoints: Bering and the North Atlantic
The traditional shipping lanes are effectively exposed to threats. The US can easily block them, but China and other powers also have some capacity in this regard. In addition, piracy can also be a problem. So, China and other Asian countries consider the Arctic routes as a safer alternative. However, they also have their narrow passages, which will assume a great strategic importance if Arctic trade develops.
The first and most important one is the Bering Strait, and 82-kilometres wide channel that divides Siberia and Alaska. It is the only connection between the Pacific and the Arctic, making of it the prominent strategic passage for Polar trade. In other words, who controls Bering also controls the shipping flow across the Arctic. Now, this power can be either Russia or the US. But for them, the Strait is not only important due to trade: it is also a matter of national security. For Russia, it is the only point where it can directly attack the US territory with ease short of using ballistic missiles. Due to the presence of a developed oil industry, hitting Alaska would allow Russia to damage America’s economy and to create a useful diversion. This eventuality, in turn, means that the area takes a significant military importance for Washington as well. Additionally, if Arctic trade develops, blocking the Bering Strait would allow the US to damage both China and Russia, its two main competitors. It is therefore not surprising that both America and Russia have military bases and perform manoeuvers around Bering, whose militarization is expected to continue as long as more and more ships travel through the Arctic. It is likely that both sides will deploy Anti-Access / Area Denial assets along its coasts as a mean to ensure their control over it by impeding the enemy forces to operate.
As far as China is concerned, Bering will also take a major strategic importance. But while its naval build-up will allow it to deploy its Navy in the area, China will have to rely on Russia to ensure that the Strait remains open. This implies that its access to the Arctic could be seriously hampered in case its relations with Moscow deteriorated, which is a possibility that should not be excluded in the long term due to a series of possible contrasts that may emerge. Moreover, from Beijing’s perspective Bering is not even the first chokepoint to be crossed to reach the Arctic: before, its ships need to pass either through the Korea Strait or the La Pérouse Strait. The former divides Korea and Japan, while the latter separates the Japanese island of Hokkaidō from Russia’s Sakhalin. Both are extremely vulnerable, since the US or even Japan may easily block them and deny China its access to the Arctic.
The second susceptible area is located at the other end of the NSR. It is not a single strait; rather, it is a group of maritime zones that connect the Arctic with the Atlantic. Each of them is sensibly wider than Bering, but they are narrow enough to allow a great military power like the US to mount a blockade capable of disrupting the regularity of trade flows; especially considering the performance of modern missiles and aircraft. Among these areas, the most famous and relevant is certainly the GIUK Gap, which takes its name from the initials of the three countries forming it; namely Greenland, Iceland, and the UK. Once the maritime frontline of the Cold War, it lost its importance after the fall of the Soviet Union. But if the NSR becomes a viable lane, its strategic importance will emerge once again; also because the Russian Navy is becoming active in the Atlantic once again and because Chinese ships may follow. That said, there are two other passages in the Atlantic: first, the North Sea; second, the Davis Strait, which divides Canada and Greenland and is one of the extremities of the Northwest Passage. The US and NATO can block both of them quite easily.
Finally, it should be noted that such areas work in both senses: cargos travelling from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic also need to cross the aforementioned passages. This means that Russia, and to a lesser degree China, may block them to damage Western economies; even though this would also harm themselves. Thanks to its powerful military and to its favorable geographic position, Russia is particularly well placed to act as the “Arctic seaways gatekeeper” and exploit this to exert pressure on the West or, if necessary, on China.
What future for Arctic trade?
By now, the importance of the Arctic’s chokepoints remains limited, because the trade volume across the region is still very low. But as the Polar ice cap shrinks and the Northern shipping lanes are developed, these passages will acquire a greater relevance in both economic and military terms.
Yet, the Arctic seaways will not resolve the chokepoint problem for China and other Asian powers: they will simply move it to the North. Nevertheless, such countries will probably develop such routes, because their economic sense remains as long as peace reigns: they are faster and cheaper than traditional ones. Moreover, energy deposits should not be forgotten as well. It will take decades, but the Arctic routes can reshape the world’s maritime trade; and the northern passages will become a great power battleground in case war breaks out.