Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards the Arctic
29 November 2023
The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has today published its report, ‘Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards the Arctic’
- Summary and recommendations
- Full report: Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards to the Arctic (HTML)
- Full report: Our friends in the North: UK strategy towards to the Arctic (PDF)
- Inquiry: The Arctic
- International relations and Defence Committee
The Arctic is now less insulated from geopolitical developments. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has pushed Finland and Sweden to join NATO, further tying the security dynamics in the Arctic and Northern Europe together. Russian military investment in the region has grown against a backdrop of deteriorating relations with the West, and as climate change is internationalising the region. Receding sea ice is opening up parts of the Arctic that were previously inaccessible, including the Arctic high seas, which may draw in external interests in the near future.
In this dynamic situation, it is imperative that the UK Government remains alert to emerging changes and regularly assesses whether it has appropriately prioritised and resourced its strategy towards the region. The Committee calls on the Government to ensure there is more sustained ministerial engagement in the Arctic and recommends the appointment of a dedicated Arctic Ambassador to ensure the UK retains its influence in the region.
Key conclusions and recommendations of the report include:
- As the Arctic opens up and security challenges grow more complex, the UK Government will almost certainly need to pay closer attention to the region in future. This will require a cross-government and multi-disciplinary approach, as well as increased ministerial focus.
- We welcome the UK Government’s increased defence commitments to the region. We are, however, concerned that the UK has insufficient key military assets, such as submarines, maritime patrol or airborne early warning aircraft, to support an increased focus on the Arctic alongside the UK’s growing interest in other regions, such as the Indo-Pacific.
- While it is not in Russia’s interest to start a conventional conflict in the Arctic, sub-threshold activity in the High North is a significant and growing threat. Close co-operation between the state and the private sector, which operates most subsea cables and pipelines, is key. The Government should establish partnerships for working with businesses to combat threats to critical infrastructure.
- China has shown a strong interest in contributing to polar research and environmental protection in the region. While it has, so far, sought to work within the Arctic’s existing governance framework, that could change quickly. The UK should continue to engage with China on Arctic scientific research and climate change, while remaining alert to the evolving nature of the Sino-Russian relationship and whether it could lead to a Chinese military presence in the Arctic.
- The UK Government should continue to advocate for and work with others on the prevention of unregulated fishing in the Arctic and the establishment of marine protected areas.
- As a non-Arctic state, the UK’s influence in the Arctic depends on strong diplomacy and coalition-building. The Government should appoint an Arctic Envoy and seek to expand co-operation with other observer states on the Arctic Council on matters of shared interest. However, it should do this in a way that does not undermine existing governance structures, or the notion of the primacy of the Arctic states.
- The continued operation of the Arctic Council is in the UK’s interest. However, the Government should prepare for the possibility that the Arctic Council may cease to function or diminish in importance.
Commenting on the report, Lord Ashton of Hyde, Chair of the International Relations and Defence Committee said:
"The Arctic is critical to UK interests – developments there directly impact on our environment, security and energy supply. It is imperative the Government has a clear sense of how the Arctic fits into the UK’s broader security and foreign policy interests in Northern Europe and beyond.
“At the moment, UK policy towards the Arctic is well-calibrated, but we need to prepare for scenarios in which the Arctic becomes much more contested and subject to conflict.
“The Arctic is a very challenging environment to operate in and requires specialised skills. It is vital that we maintain sufficient equipment and regular cold-weather training so that those skills are maintained and consolidated.
“As the Arctic’s closest neighbour, the UK has a strong interest in protecting fragile Arctic ecosystems and ensuring that all economic activity is conducted in a sustainable manner. The projected expansion of Arctic shipping, in particular, will increase the risk of accidents and pollution.
“Close international co-operation with Arctic states, industry and other stakeholders is required to strengthen shipping regulation and ensure there is adequate search and rescue infrastructure. The International Maritime Organisation is headquartered in London, and the UK is uniquely positioned to lead this effort.”
Image: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2023