Strategic importance

But it is not just the prospect of transit fees, no matter how lucrative, that is now heightening the interest of some governments in the Northwest Passage. Even more vital, particularly for the United States and Russia, is the region's crucial strategic significance. As a NATO report on the Arctic argued in January 2009, 'it is a region of enduring strategic importance for NATO, and allied security [and] developments in the High North require careful and ongoing examination'.28

Most trade routes have strategic value because anyone who controls them can potentially hold both producers and consumers to ransom. But this is clearly much more true of some routes than others for the simple reason that, in the event of any local disruption, shipping can often simply switch to alternative routes that are longer and more expensive but perfectly navigable. However, the Northwest Passage would not fall into this category; instead, it could become a 'chokepoint' like the Suez and Panama Canals, or the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, where any disruption to shipping traffic would cause serious havoc, huge delays and even economic turmoil.

If key waterways like these are disrupted, then almost everyone can lose out. Consumers can suffer from a shortage of resources that might be vital to their economy, just as in 1956 the British premier, Anthony Eden, feared that the Egyptian leader, Gamal Nasser, had his 'finger on our windpipe' as a result of his nationalization of the Suez

Canal Company. But exporters can also suffer equally badly, just as in the early 1950s a British blockade of the refinery at Abadan in the Persian Gulf stopped Iran from exporting oil, starving it of foreign exchange earnings and devastating its economy.

In other words, controlling the Northwest Passage, or at least stopping someone else from doing so, is likely to be a key strategic objective for any country concerned about its national security. Above all, American strategists will harbour no illusions about who might prise control over, or establish a presence in, some section of the Passage if they don't: China. Since the late 1990s or so, the Chinese have adopted what Western defence experts call the 'String of Pearls' strategy, which involves establishing a political or military presence along the sea routes that lead to the oil-producing states of the Middle East. Each of these 'pearls' represents a particular presence, the purpose of which is to provide 'energy security' by guarding the movement of oil tankers in the event of any disruption. So at various sites, such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Woody Island east of Vietnam, the Chinese have been busily building deep-water ports, shipping container facilities, navy bases and airfields while at the same time establishing strong diplomatic ties with governments.

Lying behind China's strategy is a deep sense of insecurity. The United States' overwhelming presence in the Gulf and close to the Malacca Straits, through which 80 per cent of China's oil imports pass, has made Beijing very fearful that, in the event of any conflict over the future of Taiwan or any other issue, Washington could choke off its oil supply. China is 'looking not only to build a blue-water navy to control the sea lanes, but also to develop undersea mines and missile capabilities to deter the potential disruption of its energy supplies from potential threats, including the US Navy, especially in the case of a conflict with Taiwan', as an internal Pentagon report, published in 2005, pointed out.29

It would be completely inconsistent for China to guard its corridor to the Middle East without also making some effort to do the same over any new supply lines that may eventually open along the Northwest Passage. Just as a Chinese company, with close ties to Beijing's communist rulers, holds long-term leases on port facilities at either end of the Panama Canal, so too in the same way could the Beijing regime potentially establish a foothold along some parts of the Northwest Passage, or along the sea lanes that lead to and from oil and natural gas fields. The mere possibility that China could disrupt the flow of shipping traffic through this region, Beijing strategists might argue, would be enough to dissuade the United States from intervening in any confrontation that China has with Taiwan or any other dispute that Beijing regards as its own private affair.

The mutual mistrust between Washington and Beijing is also likely to prompt the United States to find ways of stopping the Chinese from making such moves and to stake out its own claim instead. American strategists might regard the Northwest Passage as offering a form of insurance that would guard them from Beijing's aggression in the event of a future war between the two countries, or at least prevent the Chinese from exerting the same leverage over the United States.

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