Policy Workshop: ‘UK Policy Interests in the Polar Regions’

Friday 13 September 2013

Mansfield College, Oxford

The UK as Polar Actor: Opportunities and Challenges

Mansfield College, Oxford providing the setting for a high level workshop exploring the current and future role of the UK in the Polar Regions.

The workshop was funded by the RCUK/ESRC Global Uncertainties Impact Support Fund Grant, ‘Impacts of Polar Geopolitics for UK Policy’, 2013.

Richard Powell (University of Oxford) and Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway, University of London) chaired a meeting involving representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence, British Antarctic Survey, WWF, RUSI and the Henry Jackson Society.

During the day, considerable emphasis was given to geographical, geopolitical, environmental and scientific intersections between the Polar Regions. Governance was a major preoccupation throughout, and both Arctic and Antarctic dimensions were considered specifically and, where relevant, comparatively.

The first part of the discussion focused on the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Much lauded since its creation in 1959, concern was expressed that it was in danger of stagnating in the post-Protocol era. Speakers expressed concern over its continued effectiveness and legitimacy. One area of growing concern was resource management in areas such as fishing, biological prospecting and the efficacy of conservation measures, especially in marine protected areas. States such as Russia and the Ukraine have openly discussed mineral resource extraction. The UK, as one of the original signatories and claimant states, will need to be vigilant and be prepared to defend, in the annual consultative party meetings, important norms regarding the ATS such as base inspection and environmental impact assessment.

The role of new actors in the Antarctic and Arctic was debated, with most attention given to South and East Asian states such as China, India and Korea. Recent investment in polar science and base construction by these states is impressive. The UK is working with newer parties such as Malaysia and Korea, but it is salutary to note that the Korean polar programme is larger than British Antarctic Survey in cash terms ($88 million to $76 million in 2012 terms). While the US remains the largest polar operator, British Antarctic Survey faces further challenges to demonstrate entrepreneurial qualities (e.g. sharing base facilities). There might be opportunities for BAS and the wider UK polar community to share knowledge. Working in a challenging and costly polar environment will continue to put pressure on BAS to be seen to be delivering cost-effective science and diplomatic/strategic impact within British Antarctic Territory and beyond. There are currently two permanent British scientific stations in BAT.

The Arctic is an area of increasing interest to the UK. The Arctic Policy Framework will be published in October 2013 and provide a policy context for government departments such as FCO, MOD and DECC. It is also intended to signal the UK’s commitment to act as an active observer to the Arctic Council (AC). The UK’s role in AC working groups is noteworthy and there might be opportunities for the UK to work closely with new observers such as Italy, Japan, India and Singapore. China’s presence in the Arctic region is notable and strategic relationships with Iceland and the other Nordic countries will develop further. The UK also has a presence through its citizens in important non-governmental groups, such as WWF, who are helping to draft the Arctic Council’s Arctic Ocean strategy.

Other actors discussed in some detail included Arctic states, and in particular Canada and Russia. While both of these states share common interests in the protection of sovereign rights in the Arctic Ocean, the UK’s relationship with Canada is stronger than Russia in Arctic terms. However, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Canada and the Government of the UK for Polar science, signed on 17 December 2008, has produced modest results so far. In defence terms, the UK created the Northern Group in 2010 and works closely with Norway, which remains a critical energy and security partner in the High North. Russia was not judged to be a security threat in any way to the UK, even if UK energy companies found working in Russia challenging. Where the UK might extend further its influence in the Arctic region was considered and it was noted that the UK was an observer to the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, which discusses inter alia search and rescue and maritime domain awareness.

Overall, the UK continues to consider the Arctic as having low conflict potential but it was noted that there are considerable scientific, environmental, energy, governance and security interests. The UK continues to maintain a NERC scientific station in Ny-Ålesund (Spitsbergen Island, Svalbard), which is managed by British Antarctic Survey.  The Arctic Policy Framework will spell out why the UK will remain engaged with the Arctic region. Recent parliamentary enquiries, via the Environmental Audit Committee, have demonstrated that these interests in energy, climate change, science and defence sit uneasily with one another.

In conclusion, the UK faces a series of challenges and opportunities in the Polar Regions. Challenges include budgetary pressures to organizations such as British Antarctic Survey and polar programmes more generally and the growing influence of other actors who challenge certain norms regarding polar governance (e.g. Antarctica and the mineral resource ban. Opportunities include the ability to use the UK’s scientific diplomacy (‘soft power’ in Joseph Nye’s terms) to work with a network of actors in the Arctic and Antarctic in generating new knowledge, new funding, new relationships (UK-Malaysia in the Antarctic and UK-Japan in the Arctic) and new visions for the Polar Regions. We ended with two questions – what does the UK want from the Polar Regions? And how and why are the Polar Regions demanding of our attention?