Crowded Waters: Exploring the Implications of Internationalizing Arctic Security

Ice Camp Sargo was the base camp for the 2016 Ice Exercise (ICEX) involving four nations and 200 participants. The exercise sought to test, research and evaluate operational capabilities in the Arctic region. Photo Credit: US Department of Defense.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Those with stakes in the region are hard-pressed to keep pace with the challenges—and opportunities—emerging as a result of climate change. This dynamic has seen a number of non-Arctic states take increasingly active roles in regional governance, environmental protection, and economic development in recent years. Among this growing assembly, three non-Arctic states stand out as not only having militaries capable of operating in the circumpolar north but also, to varying degrees, strategies to guide those efforts: France, the United Kingdom, and China. This increasing internationalization of Arctic security illustrates how security dilemma dynamics are already at play in a region long held up as a “zone of peace.”[1]  

The French have been exploring and conducting research in the Arctic for centuries, a fact they use to strengthen their claim to be an Arctic stakeholder despite not having any territory there. France’s Arctic policy is laid out in its 2016 National Arctic Roadmap (FNAR), which reflects a view that the environmental changes happening in the Arctic are global and not merely regional in scale and scope, thus requiring international management.[2] In this regard, non-Arctic states such as France have a role to play in the region’s future. France is concerned that increased geo-economic competition in the region, Russia’s remilitarization, and China’s growing Arctic FDI foothold—and the accompanying assertions of sovereignty by Arctic states in response to these developments—are of important military and strategic consideration for the rest of Europe. Because of this, the French Ministry of Defense published its first strategy document for the Arctic this year, wherein the Minister for the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, forthrightly wrote that “France wants to be a lucid voice against growing ambitions: the Arctic belongs to no one.”[3]

Like France, the UK has a long history of Arctic exploration and scientific research, but it lacked a formally articulated policy on the region until 2013 when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Polar Regions Department published the UK’s first Arctic Policy Framework (APF).[4] This was succeeded by the second APF, published in April 2018,[5] which emphasizes the UK’s role in the soft power dimensions of Arctic affairs, such as research and science diplomacy, environmental protection, and support for rules-based governance in close coordination with Arctic states. Defense had but a small section in the 2018 APF, wherein the UK acknowledged Arctic states’ rights to protect their territorial jurisdictions and commercial interests, but that “the build-up of Arctic military capabilities by several Arctic States makes the future less certain.”[6] 

In particular, the UK perceives Russia’s Arctic military buildup as threatening to NATO’s northern and northeastern borders as well as the GIUK gap. This prompted the UK’s Ministry of Defense in September 2018 to announce the development of a Defense Arctic Strategy (DAS) that will put “the Arctic and High North central to the security of the United Kingdom.”[7] The declaration to maintain a military presence in the Arctic represents a firm UK commitment to NATO and its northern allies. It is also a nod toward cooperative efforts to deter Russian expansionism and to confront security challenges posed by the entrance of new players in the Arctic such as China. 

While France and the UK have formalized their positions regarding Arctic Security in the form of official strategy documents, China has chosen not to make military means the overt focus of its own strong push into Arctic matters. Rather, China has long sought to portray itself as a benign Arctic actor from outside the region focused on science and commercial development projects, such as those pertaining to energy and shipping. As a self-designated “near-Arctic” state, China has repeatedly cited its respect for the rights and sovereignty of the eight states with territories above the 66th parallel. However, it also emphasizes how international laws and norms, such as those codified in UNCLOS and the Svalbard Treaty, do grant non-Arctic states certain rights of their own in the region. China does not have a stated defense strategy for the Arctic, and it will probably not formally articulate one any time soon, even in light of the potential precedents set by France and the UK in this regard. This is because China is aware of the growing wariness from Arctic states about its presence in the circumpolar north, including from Russia,[8] its largest partner in various Arctic energy, shipping, and infrastructure development projects. To formalize a national defense strategy for the region would run the risk of provoking Arctic states and complicating China’s northern commercial endeavors. However, against this backdrop China also considers how Russia’s remilitarization and territorial claims in the Arctic run counter to the former’s own freedom of navigation and commercial interests there. Moreover, China sees itself explicitly called out by the U.S. as a threat alongside Russia in the region[9] and how in response–or perhaps preparation–to this perception of great power competition Arctic states and other non-Arctic states are devising regional military strategies of their own. As a result of these dynamics, China recognizes that it must be able to defend its sizable interests and national imperatives in the Arctic, including militarily if need be.[10]

In 2015, Chinese naval vessels sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Aleutian islands, coinciding with a visit by then-President Barack Obama to Alaska. This prompted concern about whether the PLA would be so bold as to send its warships or submarines across the Arctic Circle in the near future.[11] While China’s overt military capabilities for the Arctic remain unclear, what is clear is that the country’s scientific research efforts and cooperation with partners to improve the security of shipping and navigation in the region, such as with Russia along the NSR, have dual-use potential. In May 2019, the Pentagon warned that Chinese civilian research infrastructure and activities in the Arctic could support military deployments to the region.[12] These, along with China’s growing icebreaking capabilities, could well position the PLA to counter any perceived future threats to the country’s Arctic assets.    

The development of French, British, and Chinese Arctic defense policies and capabilities—each with varying degrees of overtness—demonstrates that regional security is increasingly being internationalized, and management of that security is expanding beyond the purview of Arctic states. There is also support for a security dilemma, “the ultimate sources of [which] are anarchy–i.e. the lack of a higher authority in international politics–and states’ uncertainty and fears about each other’s intentions under anarchy.”[13] First, we see that the lack of a mechanism or forum to address emerging hard security concerns in the Arctic has resulted in an underlying security environment that is anarchic in nature. In this system, the absence of a security mandate for the Arctic Council means there are limited opportunities to discuss relevant concerns between the west and Russia in the Arctic, or between Arctic states and those who lack territory in the region but nonetheless have interests there in need of protection, or even among the three leading global powers—the U.S., Russia, and China—and between them and everyone else worried about what this new iteration of great power competition could mean for the fragile Arctic geopolitical environment and the pursuit of economic interests. Second, a common thread stringing together the defense positions of the French, British and Chinese seems to be a general uncertainty that their Arctic interests can be adequately protected in this system, and a belief that their respective militaries must be prepared to meet this need if necessary.

Given the tricky strategic environment it finds itself navigating in the Arctic, China has favored a soft rather than hard power approach that emphasizes scientific research, monitoring of climate change impacts, and economic development in the region. This is more practical, more cost-effective, and less likely to unnecessarily provoke Arctic states, to whom all non-Arctic states still defer. While China has emphasized its right to global trade (as seen in the country’s Made in China 2025 policy) and its right to global navigation, including in international waters (mirroring the US position), the country is also cultivating economic partnerships in the form of, for example, energy projects with Russia and investment in Greenland and other high north communities. These factors position China to increasingly influence regional governance in the coming decades. As specifically security-related challenges in the Arctic become more apparent over this timeframe, Arctic states should be wary of relying on outward statements on defense and traditional displays of force, and more focused on guiding the conversation around issues of soft power.


[1] In 1987, then-General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, gave a speech in Murmansk, Russia wherein he said, “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace.”  Commentators on Arctic security issues tend to use the term “zone of peace” to describe how the Arctic was or, conversely, how it still is; the former perspective assumes the Arctic to be susceptible to conflict, whereas the latter assumes that the international cooperation enjoyed in the region over the past thirty years remains alive and well. For an English translation of Gorbachev’s speech, see: Gorbachev, M., The Speech in Murmansk at the ceremonial meeting on the occasion of the presentation of the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal to the city of Murmansk, October 1, 1987 (Novosti Press Agency: Moscow, 1987), pp. 23-31,

[2] “The Great Challenge of the Arctic: National Roadmap for the Arctic,” Ministry of the Armed Forces of France, June 2016,

[3] “France and the New Strategic Challenges in the Arctic,” Ministry of the Armed Forces of France, November 2019,

[4] “Adapting to Change: UK Policy Towards the Arctic,” UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Polar Regions Department, October 17, 2013,

[5] “Beyond the Ice: UK Policy Towards the Arctic,” UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Polar Regions Department, April 4, 2018,

[6] “Beyond the Ice: UK Policy Towards the Arctic,” 2018, 21.

[7] Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE, “Defense Secretary Announces New Defense Arctic Strategy,” UK Ministry of Defense, September 30, 2018,

[8] Gao Tianming and Vasili Erokhin, “China-Russian Collaboration in Shipping and Marine Engineering as One of the Key Factors of Secure Navigation Along the NSR,” in: Redefining Arctic Security: Arctic Yearbook 2019, ed. L. Heininen, H. Exner-Pirot, and J. Barnes (Akereyri, Iceland: Arctic Portal, 2019), 432.

[9] Micheal R. Pompeo, “Looking North: Sharpening America’s Arctic Focus,” speech at the Arctic Council 11th Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, May 6, 2019,

[10] Heljar Havnes and Johan Martin Seland, “The Increasing Security Focus in China’s Arctic Policy,” The Arctic Institute, July 16, 2019,

[11] Duncan Depledge, Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, and James Rogers, “The UK and the Arctic: Forward Defense,” in: Redefining Arctic Security: Arctic Yearbook 2019, ed. L. Heininen, H. Exner-Pirot, and J. Barnes (Akereyri, Iceland: Arctic Portal, 2019), 399. 

[12] “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” United States Department of Defense, May 2, 2019, 114. —

[13] Camilla T. N. Sørensen, “Intensifying U.S.-China Security Dilemma Dynamics Play Out in the Arctic: Implications for China’s Arctic Strategy,” in: Redefining Arctic Security: Arctic Yearbook 2019, ed. L. Heininen, H. Exner-Pirot, and J. Barnes (Akereyri, Iceland: Arctic Portal, 2019), 443-444.

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