Cornell Overfield and Josh Tallis - Written Evidence (ARC00011)


*The views in this submission do not necessarily reflect those of CNA.


May 14, 2023


Cornell Overfield is an analyst focused on international law and global order, particularly in the Arctic. He has written extensively on these issues for Foreign Policy and Lawfare, and has contributed to most of CNA’s recent analyses on the Arctic.

Dr. Joshua Tallis is a maritime and polar analyst at CNA, where he is a senior research scientist in the strategy and policy program. In 2018, he deployed with USS Harry S Truman as the civilian analyst on the Navy’s first Arctic carrier deployment since the end of the Cold War. His writing on the Arctic has appeared in War on the Rocks, Foreign Policy, and DefenseOne.



3. What is China’s strategy towards the Arctic and what are the implications for the UK and its allies?

As underscored by CNA’s recent research on China’s economic activities in the Arctic, Chinese regional strategic objectives in the near to medium term are driven by economic incentives and prestige. PRC and other Chinese-language sources describe the region as important for sustaining China’s economic growth, particularly as a source of energy and mineral resources. Strategic thinkers in or affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army have also stressed the Arctic’s strategic military value as a haven for submarines and as a potentially lucrative strategic waterway as an alternative to chokepoint-laden Indo-Pacific routes. Investments by state owned enterprises tilt heavily in favor of these interests, focusing on extractive and maritime industries. Finally, PRC leaders describe the Arctic as the “community with a shared future of mankind,” a refrain in their articulations of an alternative system of global order, and in line with their perspective that global powers are necessarily polar powers.

CNA’s research has found that the PRC currently seeks to achieve its goals in the Arctic through predominantly non-military means, including economic diplomacy. Over the last several years, Arctic states have become alert to this strategy and increased domestic safeguards against one particular form of economic activity, foreign direct investment (FDI). Consequently, we found relatively low levels of PRC FDI in the Arctic over the last five years, in part attributable to strong legal screening mechanisms in most Arctic states. These have prevented successful investments as national security concerns about China have risen, particularly in Canada and Norway. The successes of Western screening create openings for Western states and business, including the UK and British businesses, to increase their own Arctic investments to provide alternative sources of capital to Arctic communities and projects.

4. What is the UK and NATO’s role in the Arctic, and how is this affected by Finland and Sweden’s accession to the Alliance?

NATO is an inherently Arctic alliance. As of May 2023, six of eight Arctic states are NATO members, and Sweden is close to ascension. However, the Arctic should not be thought of as one seamless military space, and NATO’s current and theoretical responsibilities vary across the space.

The most established domain for NATO operation in the Arctic is the European High North. Note that we define the High North differently than the UK’s Defense Contribution to the Arctic. Whereas that document understands High North as the entire Arctic plus parts of the North Atlantic, we (as with most Arctic analysts) consider the High North to be the narrower geography of Norway, the Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, and some non-Arctic spaces up to the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap. In recent years, exercises involving a wide range of NATO forces, including UK forces, have taken place in the High North, including Trident Juncture (2018), Cold Response (2022), and Dynamic Mongoose (2023). These exercises have generally focused on common defense of Norway, with a major amphibious focus, as well as anti-submarine warfare.

Russian (and before that, Soviet) war planning has long assumed some forays from Russian naval bases in the Kola Peninsula towards the Atlantic through the High North and the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap. To contain this potential threat, NATO members have drilled anti-submarine warfare repeatedly in the region, and the UK and Norway both operate US-built P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft for wide area search. The US operates P-8s out of Keflavik Air Field in Iceland (where NATO also provides an air policing mission in defense of the island nation) and the UK has deployed its own P-8A to Iceland (in 2021). The US further maintains a critical relationship with the UK in service of High North deployments, including the logistics hub at Crombie, the operation of P-8 from Lossiemouth airfield, and submarine port visits in Faslane.

NATO can and should be a leader in security in the High North, particularly since High North maritime insecurity could have significant ramifications for non-Arctic NATO members. The High North’s is largely international waters, and its maritime character naturally implicates a wider range of stakeholders. Unconventional attacks, for example on gas pipelines connecting Norway with the UK and Continental Europe, could disrupt already fragile post-Ukraine energy markets and the general economy. In conflict situations, a breakout of Russian submarines from the High North poses a meaningful threat to transatlantic resupply of the Alliance.

With the ascension of Finland (and eventually, Sweden), NATO’s collective security responsibilities will expand to formally cover the entire Scandinavian Arctic. NATO forces, including British forces (linked to Scandinavia already by way of the Joint Expeditionary Force), will likely exercise common defense for these new Arctic NATO members. However, the Arctic dimensions of these exercises and defense commitments will likely be heavily land- and air-centric given the new members lack Arctic coastlines, while Finland’s Russian Arctic land border is much longer than Norway’s (doubling the overall NATO border with Russia). Another feature of Finnish and Swedish ascension is a further tightening of the strategic defense linkages between the Baltic and the High North, creating a need for a cross-regional approach to Arctic defense. Should Finland and Sweden join Allied Joint Forces Command Brunssum's area of responsibility, it will further draw the Scandinavian Arctic into the orbit of central and northern European defense planning.

Other regions of the Arctic, including the North American Arctic, the Bering Strait, and the Russian Arctic are largely outside NATO’s remit or otherwise contentious. Canada, for example, has historically preferred NATO to eschew a focus on the North American Arctic, security for which is a bilateral responsibility of the United States and Canada. However, there may be some room for coalitions of the willing among NATO members to exercise with the US and Canada or participate in patrols deeper into the Russian Arctic should that be desired.

12. What is the impact of the effective suspension of the Arctic Council for the governance of the region? Are there other governance mechanisms that could be leveraged? What are the prospects for multilateral cooperation on issues relating to the Arctic and High North?

The Arctic 7 (A7) decision to partially suspend participation in the Arctic Council in response to Russia blatant violation is tragic but necessary. Arctic cooperation since 1991 has been based on principles of international law, good faith cooperation, and mutual respect—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine directly attacked those principles. Russia must face outcasting (the denial of the benefits of cooperation) in defense of the core tenet of the post-war international order, the illegality of aggression, and the very principles that made the Arctic “exceptional” in the post-Cold War period. The Arctic could not remain an exception as the A7 rightfully ostracized Russian in other spaces. 


However, the Arctic Council should not be mistaken as the primary governance tool for the Arctic. The Arctic is already largely governed by states and widely accepted legal arrangements, independent of the Arctic Council. With the 2022 resolution of the low-tension Canada-Denmark Hans Island dispute, all land borders in the Arctic are settled. Arctic exclusive economic zones (regions where the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea confers exclusive rights to a coastal state to exploit living and non-living resources) are generally also delimited in the Arctic. The only remaining EEZ dispute is between the US and Canada in the Beaufort Sea, a disagreement that is unlikely to cause substantive political or security reverberations. Russia, Canada, and Denmark (and likely the US) all have overlapping claims to extended continental shelves under the Central Arctic Ocean, but all parties are proceeding in accordance with international law. Any area of seabed that remains outside those states’ continental shelves will be under the governance of the International Seabed Authority. On the high seas, any vessels or aircraft operates under the governance of their flag state. The IMO’s Polar Code provide standards for vessels from non-Arctic states to follow as they exercise navigational rights in Arctic territorial seas, EEZs, and high seas. The Search and Rescue agreement negotiated under the Arctic Council dividing the Arctic into zones of responsibility for the Arctic Ocean littoral states remains in force.


In terms of military security, which has always been beyond the Arctic Council’s remit, governance gaps have always been at the political level, not the operational one. The Incidents at Sea Agreement guides interactions between Russian and US military forces, providing a shared vocabulary to manage interactions at sea (and any subsequent protests), while Norwegian forces maintain some communication with Russian counterparts. Soft security challenges attributed to the A7 decision by some Arctic scholars, like increased economic opportunities for non-Arctic states like China, India, or the UAE, are driven by sanctions or firms’ own decisions (often predating the A7 announcement) to withdraw from Russian Arctic investment projects, not the halting of Arctic Council operations.


The Arctic Council’s importance for the Arctic’s climate governance also should not be overstated. Climate change is a leitmotif in Arctic policy, but the Arctic Council is not vital to tackling climate change. Climate change will be felt by Arctic communities in areas under state jurisdiction and is thus necessarily under the remit of each individual Arctic state to mitigate and address. Cooperation in mitigating the effects of climate change in the Arctic might yield results but need not happen solely through the Council (as seen in the variety of active climate and oceans related multilateral forums, including the recent finalization of the treaty on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdictions). While the Arctic is warming at up to four times faster than the rest of the world, this is driven by global greenhouse gas emissions, almost all of which are emitted outside the Arctic. Some Arctic-specific actions could help stem the speed of change, such as restrictions on black carbon emissions in the shipping industry, but truly halting the ravages of climate change requires Arctic states to seek carbon reductions by the world’s top polluters, not simply among themselves.


Although the Council has no formal governance role, it certainly plays an important role convening stakeholders to facilitate research exchange, particularly to better understand climate change, and to engage in treaty negotiation. That the largest Arctic state no longer participates in these activities is no doubt a loss, but not all progress is stalled. The A7 resolved to maintain active Arctic Council projects in which Russia was not participating and succeeded in reviving two-thirds of extant projects. Which is to say, before 2022, two-thirds of Arctic Council research did not include or could be meaningfully run without Russian participation. Furthermore, treaties on oil spill response and search and rescue negotiated under the auspices of the Council remain in force and respected by the signatories, including Russia. Between ongoing A7 multilateral partnership; sovereign jurisdiction and authorities on land and extending through EEZs and the outer continental shelf; and the governance structure afforded by UNCLOS and extant treaties on SAR, shipping, and high seas fishing, the Arctic is not a no-man's land. Even amid an Arctic Council freeze, states should strongly consider strengthening existing tools, enforcing existing treaties, and working through existing bi- and multi-lateral structures before adding new layers of institutions in the region.


What does this mean for opportunities for the UK to shape regional governance? Regardless of the Arctic Council’s future, economic, scientific, and social governance in the Arctic is and will remain fundamentally national in character in areas under national jurisdiction and guided by international law in the 20 percent of the Arctic high seas beyond national jurisdiction. The UK should support these rules (UNCLOS, the CAO Fisheries Agreement, the CLCS, and the ISA) as core institutions of the rules based international order. These institutions, norms, and rules play to UK strengths as a maritime power in the international system. Supplementary multinational cooperation on issues such as fostering regional investment could mutually benefit Arctic and non-Arctic states aligned with the United Kingdom, and again play to British strengths in the banking and capital markets. Security governance mechanisms among NATO members relevant to the High North appear to be another promising means for non-Arctic states, particularly the UK because of its strategic position at the gates to the European Arctic, to have an important role in the Arctic’s security architecture.


14 May 2023