China in the Bering Sea

By Dr. Andrea Charron, 21 October 2022

Headlines on 26 September 2022 repeated a US Coast Guard announcement (USCG).  “The Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew on a routine patrol in the Bering Sea encountered a People’s Republic of China Guided Missile Cruiser, Renhai CG 101, sailing approximately 75 nautical miles north of Kiska Island, Alaska, September 19, 2022.”    

US Rear Admiral Nathan Moore, 17th Coast Guard District Commander, was quick to note that the vessels remained within international waters.  What he also signalled was the importance of deterrence by detection and denial.  In other words, the USCG will meet “presence-with-presence.”   

This is not the first time that Chinese and Russia ships have travelled to the Bering Sea.  Indeed, there is routine interaction between the USCG 17th District and Russian Border Guard Directorate for the Eastern Arctic District. China’s presence however, is newer although Chinese warships were found near the Aleutian Islands in August 2021 inside the United States Exclusive Economic Zone.  It is still considered the high seas, but provocative nonetheless. 

Some will insist a straight line may be drawn from Ukraine and this activity in the Arctic by Russia and China. I do not. Rather, the questions to ask is does this portend the likelihood of increased conflict? And, is this the direct result of the aggression by Russian on Ukraine? On the one hand, the behaviour of both Russia and China in the Arctic since 24 February 2022 has been muted.  Rather than buzzing vessels and aircraft and jamming NATO’s GPS during Cold Response exercise held by Norway in 2022, Russia was more restrained than had been the case in past NATO exercises such as during Trident Juncture in March 2018.  China generally stays physically far away from NATO Arctic exercises. 

On the other hand, because of the heightened tensions, mishaps, accidents and incidents could escalate to a conflict quickly and so foreign warships in areas so close to the United States could be misinterpreted easily. Hawks will cry foul, doves will say let’s wait and see.  They are both right and wrong. 

If the international rules based order, a key interest for all Arctic states, included as a priority in successive Arctic strategies, is to be upheld, then ships will continue to have the right to transit in international waters, including the Bering Sea.  It does mean, however, that the ability to detect, deny and deter so that vessels and air assets stay at a more comfortable distance from potential adversaries becomes more important. The Bering Strait falls within USNORTHCOM’s area of responsibly but it is along a seam with EUCOM and INDOPACOM.  Likewise, the Aleutian Islands fall with USNORTHCOM but also on a seam with INDOPACOM. These seams, and the fact that USINDOPACOM owns many of the capabilities that USNORTHCOM requires, needs a review; seams are areas to exploit and to test command and control and communication across the combatant commands.  

There is no straight line from the aggression against Ukraine by Russia to an inevitable conflict in the Arctic.  Rather, there will be more tangential effects.  Russia’s military has always reserved its best for the Arctic – strategically, it is its most consequential region to defend. The Northern Sea Route is still not the Panama Canal of the north Russia boasts it will be. Russia’s pariah status is undermining its status as an Arctic power and because the West is no longer communicating with Russia via a number of fora and events, activity, like the warships in the Bering Strait need to be watched carefully to minimize the risk of escalation.  

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