Geo-strategic analysts around the world remain fixated with the Indo-Pacific and the Strait of Malacca where China and the democratic world are competing for influence. But the changing climatic conditions and the melting polar ice cap are gradually creating a new venue for a Great Power competition involving some of the biggest global powers- the United States of America, Russia and China.
The Arctic region is currently seen as inhospitable and unamenable to world trade. And therefore, the Bering Strait- a narrow choke point that divides the Russian Far East from Alaska, United States, and connects the Pacific Ocean with the Arctic isn’t presently a strategic waterway. However, with predictions of the Arctic becoming ice-free for a part of the year by 2044, Bering Strait will no longer be an insignificant location.
Bering Strait is an extreme corner of the world where the Westernmost and Easternmost parts of the world meet each other. Therefore, lamps The Diomede Islands located in the Bering Strait are sometimes called Tomorrow Island (Big Diomede, Russian territory) and Yesterday Island (Little Diomede, U.S. territory). The time difference between them is 20 hours though they are just 3 kilometres away from each other.
But Bering Strait’s remoteness is no longer making it strategically insignificant. In fact, as the Arctic prepares itself for melting and extensive commercialisation, all three powers- China, Russia and the US will want a greater share in the new shipping lanes and energy resources that will get discovered in the Arctic. But the path to the Arctic passes through the Bering Strait.
For the US and Russia, the aspiration to dominate the Bering Strait and expand influence in the Arctic is natural given their geographical position that is adjacent with the narrow chokepoint. On the other hand, China’s claims are merely fictitious and expansionist. Beijing is not an Arctic power, and in fact, China is as far away from the Arctic as Poland. However, Beijing calls itself a “Near-Arctic State”.
Moscow can exercise legitimate influence in the region because of the Russian Far East Territory which is contiguous with the Bering Strait. Similarly, the American territory of Alaska is located adjacent to the Bering Strait. Therefore, the US and Russia are both Arctic Coastal States with maritime claims that are capable of being recognised in international law, i.e. the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
However, China has its own plans to exercise influence in the region. Recently, China staked claim over Vladivostok, a Russian Far East territory re-igniting concerns of predatory Chinese investment in Russia’s Far East territory. And at the same time, Beijing is looking to mobilise investments and soft power in Alaska, by promoting oil and gas exploration projects, and Chinese tourism in this part of the United States.
China’s strategy is therefore to encircle the Bering Strait and create a sea route into the Arctic. Beijing wants to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ in the Arctic and therefore the Bering Strait is becoming incredibly significant for China. China’s Arctic vision militates directly against Russian and American interests in the region. Going ahead, China will either start setting up some more ‘historical’ claims in the Russian Far East and Alaska, or it will simply claim equality of access negating sovereignty of Arctic Coastal States.
At the end of the day, the spotlight is going to be on the Bering Strait- a part of the world which was never really in the limelight due to its remote and isolated location. All the three superpowers are going to play their part, effectively converting the narrow chokepoint into a war theatre.
Russia is already operating the Northern Sea Route (NSR) that runs along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait and therefore it will not tolerate China’s growing influence in this part of the world. This year alone, the NSR is expected to carry freight in excess of 32 million tons.
On the other hand, the US will also realise that it cannot simply let China take commercial control in Alaska with a view to dominate the Bering Strait. Beijing is antagonising both Russia and the US, and consequently the world will see the Bering Strait turn into a major conflict-zone over the next few decades.