Mar 2016

Is the UK still a polar power?

The question needed to be revisited because of increased interest from all over the world in both the Arctic and Antarctic, including significant investment in science and transportation infrastructure by the emerging Asian economic powerhouses (China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore), and a widening of participation in key decision-making and decision-shaping bodies such as the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the Arctic Council.  

The Government responded to some of these changes with a white paper published in 2013 setting out a policy framework for engaging with the Arctic. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords have undertaken ‘Arctic’ inquiries, in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Parliament also recently passed the Antarctic Act 2013, which primarily implements a new Annex to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty on liabilities arising from environmental emergencies involving the UK.

These actions reflect key differences in Britain’s Arctic and Antarctic interests.

In the South, Britain as an original claimant state has special obligations to uphold the Antarctic Treaty System (under which Britain’s sovereign claim to part of Antarctica is metaphorically ‘frozen’) and there is also a national requirement to maintain a strong scientific presence on the continent. Parts of the white continent are therefore subject to British law.    

However, in the North, Britain no longer has sovereignty, having passed ownership of the territory it once claimed in British North America to the Dominion of Canada in 1880. Although Britain remained an influential scientific and strategic player in the Arctic throughout much of the twentieth century, Britain was side-lined by the emergence of more exclusionary ‘circumpolar’ forums established by the eight Arctic states in the early 1990s.

While Britain has been supportive of these circumpolar forums (an important source of peace and stability in the region), it has come at the cost of being able to speak freely about Arctic matters, making it harder for Britain to show progressive leadership in the region, much of which falls under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Arctic states.  

Consequently, British influence today must be leveraged through bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the Arctic states, which benefits in particular from Britain’s reputation for excellence in polar science. Britain plays an important part in the international conversation to address key science gaps, particularly the need for a sustained Arctic observing system to track long-term physical changes in the region.

Britain’s on-going participation in forums such as the Northern Group and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable also creates opportunities to engage the Arctic states in discussions about security. Britain’s involvement in the Arctic security architecture is bolstered by the ongoing maintenance of by Britain’s ‘polar’ capability – comprising elements of the Royal Navy (including Royal Marines), the Royal Air Force and the Army.

Keeping up to date with training and exercises (e.g. participation in the biennial Exercise Cold Response) will be crucial for maintaining this capability.  

More broadly, Britain is seeking to strengthen its influence in the Arctic through the pursuit of strategic alliances, especially on science and defence, with key partners in the Arctic (particularly Canada, Norway and the US). The APPG for Polar Regions will examine the economic opportunities for British businesses later this year.  

In Antarctica, the issues look quite different. The commitment of money, people and infrastructure to support British science remains sufficient and continues to have influence. While other countries may deliver more in-depth science in specific fields, Britain has few rivals in terms of its breadth of coverage. British science is therefore capable of expressing views on a much wider range of issues (from the deep ocean to the outer atmosphere) than most.

Antarctica is demilitarised under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty System and is not a significant strategic concern. However, the MoD does deploy its only Ice Patrol Ship, HMS Protector, to the South for constabulary duties (relating to illegal fishing and environmental pollution) and hydrographic charting. Since January 2014, the MoD has also conducted a number of ad-hoc resupply mission to support the British scientific using a Hercules C-130.  

On the diplomatic front, Britain has recently signed bilateral cooperation agreements with New Zealand and Australia to further cooperation on their cross-continental interests (e.g. upholding the conservation rules of the Antarctic Treaty system and protecting the Southern Ocean from illegal fishing activities).

Nevertheless, our discussions identified a number of issues which must be kept under review.

First, there remains an ongoing debate about how active NATO should be in the Arctic, especially in light of Russia’s recent aggressiveness in Ukraine. The debate over the legal status of the Northern Sea Route – and whether states such as Britain could, in an ice-free future, exercise a right to innocent passage – also remains unresolved. These issues will be reviewed again at the next meeting of the APPG for Polar Regions, and by the forthcoming House of Commons Defence Committee Sub-Committee inquiry into Russia and the High North.  

Second, in terms of broader diplomatic efforts to support good governance and stability in the Arctic, the main issues again concern relations with Russia. Russia has continued to act cooperatively in the Arctic, although there have been reports that the enthusiasm of Russian officials has cooled in recent months. Even so, Russia, more than most, has a great deal to lose in the Arctic so the real question is whether diplomatic tensions elsewhere in Europe can be kept out of the Arctic.  

Third, it is clear that Britain performs strongly in the polar sciences (key strengths include world-class quality of research, integrated logistics and ability to operate in extreme environments), although this is no time for complacency. The new NERC polar research ship will potentially put Britain in the vanguard of polar science for at least the next twenty years, but will need to be supported by a sustained commitment from Government to fund British polar science.  

In conclusion, the opinion of the panel was that Britain is maintaining its historic influence in the polar regions despite the challenges set out above.  

In the Antarctic in particular, Britain is well placed to show leadership in both science and diplomacy, while the presence of HMS Protector is an on-going reminder of Britain’s ability to project power into the region to perform a constabulary role.  

In the Arctic, Britain and other non-Arctic states have inevitably been pushed to the edges of circumpolar governance forums. Nevertheless, Britain’s scientific contribution remains an important source of indirect influence with the Arctic states. Opportunities to increase Britain’s economic influence will be the subject of a future meeting of the APPG for Polar Regions.  

The APPG for Polar Regions would like to thank the expert panel for offering their views. On the expert panel were Jane Rumble, the long-standing Head of the Polar Regions Department in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO); Nick Gurr, the Director of International Security Policy and Arctic Champion in the Ministry of Defence (MoD); and Tim Stockings, the Operations Director at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) who has special responsibility for managing much of the UK’s nationally-owned field bases, logistics and infrastructure in the polar regions.  

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This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
It has not been approved by either House or its committees.