The Polar Regions in the Integrated Review

The United Kingdom’s (UK) Integrated Review – published under the title ‘Global Britain in a Competitive Age’ on 16th March – has several explicit references to the Polar Regions. It is a review of the UK’s defence and security posture, so references to regional theatres are succinct. The British Government anticipates working with more like-minded states, including key polar partners such as Norway. As the UK-Norway High Level Arrangement on Cooperation on Polar Affairs acknowledges in March 2021: ‘recognising the close and enduring links between the United Kingdom and Norway on polar matters; and the significant value of continuing close cooperation’. In short, those charged with protecting the UK’s interests in the Arctic and Antarctic cannot be disappointed by those references alongside the Defence Command paper entitled ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ published a week later than the Integrated Review.

What ‘integrates’ both the Integrated Review and the Defence Command Paper is a shared recognition that science and the armed forces (in the form of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, HMS Protector) perform two fundamental tasks: 

  1. To showcase the UK’s ongoing presence in the Antarctic, specifically in British Antarctic Territory (BAT); 
  2. To engage with third parties in both the Arctic and Antarctic, much of which will take the form of scientific cooperation and/or confidence-building measures such as base inspection in Antarctica. 

There are broader defence and strategic implications to consider, but much of that centres in and around the Falkland Islands and British interests in the ‘Far South’.

British interests in the Far South

Established as a separate overseas territory in 1962 and counter-claimed by Argentina and Chile, BAT is approximately three times larger than the UK and is governed by the BAT Commissioner, Ben Merrick. It is thinly populated, with the vast majority of near-permanent residents being British and international scientists. Research stations are distributed across the northern portion of BAT. The UK’s position in Antarctica has been relatively stable: since 1961, the Antarctic Treaty – of which the UK is an original signatory – and associated legal instruments have helped ensure that the region has avoided territorial and resource conflict. As the Integrated Review notes: 

By 2021, the Antarctic Treaty will have been in force for 60 years. The UK was the first signatory of the treaty, which protects Antarctica as a continent for peaceful scientific cooperation. Using our new state-of-the-art Polar Research vessel RRS Sir David Attenborough, and through further investment in our Antarctic scientific stations and capabilities, the UK will continue to uphold and strengthen the Antarctic Treaty System [ATS] and maintain our leadership in the study of the global implications of climate change in Antarctica. 

The UK’s presence in the Far South is complemented by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force (RAF). The ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, operates in the Antarctic summer season and conducts logistical support for science programmes, base inspection and hydrographic surveying. The vessel was subject to a recent £14 million refit, which in part improved its ice-breaking capabilities. The RAF supports the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) via a C-130 aircraft and carried out resupply flights, including air-dropping supplies to the BAS forward base called Sky Blu. Alongside that, the UK research station at Rothera is being upgraded and refurbished in the coming years, including a new Discovery Building and wharf development. The Defence Command Paper picked up on similar themes, noting that HMS Protector is an example of the UK’s ‘persistent engagement’ in Antarctica. It noted: 

The British Antarctic Survey provides the UK’s permanent presence in the British Antarctic Territory and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. Annual seasonal Antarctic patrols by our Ice Patrol ship, HMS Protector, will maintain and assure compliance of other state parties in the prohibition of military activity, weapons testing and observance of environmental protocols under the Antarctic Treaty System.

The UK’s commitment to strengthen the ATS is going to have to grapple with two major challenges. The first is the disruptive consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. To prevent the virus’ outbreak in BAT research stations, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) re-planned its science and logistics in 2020-2021. Indeed, Antarctica has not been spared from Covid-19; Chile has been proactive in vaccination in Antarctica after experiencing the first recorded on-site outbreak. Delays caused by the pandemic will affect the date when the RRS Sir David Attenborough will be able to work with scientists in the Far South, with a date of 2023 likely. 

Second, the postponement of face-to-face meetings has meant that the ATS has moved to ‘Zoom diplomacy’. Difficult decisions over fisheries management remain, especially future Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Put simply, the UK and its partners, such as the United States (US) and Australia, are advocates of MPAs, whereas others, such as China, South Korea, and Russia, tend to be reluctant to embrace what they consider further restrictions on their activities in the Southern Ocean. Consequently, the next couple of years are going to be difficult. A recent case involving a disputed Russian fishing vessel, Palmer, revealed the fault lines ahead. The vessel was accused of illegal fishing in January 2020 and Russia stood accused of falsifying locational data. As the governance of Antarctica is based on the principle of consensus, Russia managed to avoid the captain and crew of the Palmer being sanctioned in part because it refused to share data and accept that the vessel should be blacklisted.

The Integrated Review reiterates that the UK will use its scientific power to build influence, maintain partnerships and project power.

Fishing is not just a contentious issue for Antarctic waters; it is a shared concern in the wider South Atlantic. The UK’s commitment to upholding its overseas territories in the region – the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and the South Sandwich Islands – inevitably concerns fisheries management and protection. In November 2020, Argentina published a national map depicting the country’s claims to the various Antarctic and South Atlantic territories and associated sovereign rights. It is, therefore, no surprise that the Integrated Review pledged to ‘support the [Overseas Territories] OTs and Crown Dependencies in deterring and defending against state and non-state threats.’

Growing relations between Argentina and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) present risks for the UK, with Chinese investment in infrastructure and potential refurbishment of a naval base close to Ushuaia being just two notable examples. Another area is fishing. Chinese fishing in the South Atlantic is substantial. One concern will be whether Argentine-Chinese cooperation might extend to the PRC actively working to promote Argentina’s territorial claims in the South Atlantic. But the price Argentina might have to pay is to tolerate more intensive Chinese fishing. The US and Brazil, in turn, might reach out to the UK as part of a concerted effort to resist China’s resource/strategic-intensive footprint.

British interests in the ‘Wider North’

Looking to the Wider North, the Integrated Review notes that:

The UK is the nearest neighbour to the Arctic region. Through our role as a State Observer to the Arctic Council, we will contribute to maintaining the region as one of high cooperation and low tension. We will also maintain a significant contribution to Arctic science, focused on understanding the implications of climate change. We are committed to working with our partners to ensure that increasing access to the region and its resources is managed safely, sustainably and responsibly. 

This statement largely replicates the position adopted in ‘Beyond the ice: UK policy towards the Arctic’, which reiterates British scientific, economic and trading interests in the Wider North. Following a suite of recent parliamentary enquires in the last five years on the Arctic and Environmental Diplomacy, the Integrated Review reiterates that the UK will use its scientific power to build influence, maintain partnerships and project power. Although unmentioned by the Integrated Review, Brexit has altered a few things in the Arctic. The most notable was the UK involvement via the European Union (EU) in the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement (2018). The agreement established a moratorium on commercial fishing, and it is not clear whether the UK will be invited to sign it independently of EU membership. The Central Arctic Ocean is international waters, and the UK has been an active producer of marine science in and around the North Pole. 

Working with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies – such as Norway, Iceland and the US – the UK will continue to coordinate its broader strategic activities in the Wider North. As the Defence Command Paper observes: ‘We will increase our commitment to…the High North, the Baltics…building and working through multilateral groupings, such as the Northern Group.’

The Integrated Review has little to note concerning geostrategic competition in the Arctic. Environmental change, resource calculation and strategic access have all been identified as drivers of Arctic geopolitics. Russia is the primary cause of concern, and the Chinese-Russian partnership has resulted in collaboration in areas such as transport and resource development. While the US and UK have conducted under-ice submarine operations in the Arctic Ocean (and will continue to work with NATO allies on military exercises, surveillance overflight and capabilities testing), the UK is not an Arctic state. The Arctic Council is the international forum for building dialogue among all Arctic and non-Arctic states par excellence, but it avoids any discussion of military and security issues. In 2021, Russia assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021-2023) and the UK and other NATO allies have opportunities to consider how they might interact.

The Integrated Review is primarily concerned with the ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, not the Polar Regions. However, the UK’s position in the Antarctic and South Atlantic is unquestionably stronger due to infrastructural investment in science and logistical support. Argentina’s relationship with China will need to be scrutinised, as will Russia and the PRC’s posture towards the Far South. Fisheries is the most likely area of contention. In the Wider North, working with NATO allies is integral to future planning, with the UK working closely with important allies such as Norway and the US to counter any further attempts by Russia to assert military primacy.

Prof. Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has spent over 25 years working on the polar regions, travelling extensively around the Antarctic, the South Atlantic islands and Wider North.

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