Special Editors’ Introduction

Dr Uttam Kumar Sinha is Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 2014

    This special issue on the Arctic is based on revised and updated versions of papers presented at the Geopolitics of the Arctic: Commerce, Governance and Policy conference at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, during September 23–24, 2013, in cooperation with the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI), the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The conference took place only a few months after the five Asian countries—China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea (Asia 5)—were given status as permanent observers in the Arctic Council. In this special issue, leading experts from Norway and several Asian countries examine the main drivers of Asian countries’ increased engagement in Arctic affairs and how their engagement may impact on the development in the Arctic region with regard to geopolitics, commerce and governance. The entrance of the five Asian countries as permanent observers in the Arctic Council was a symbolic and significant event in Arctic affairs. Some of the Arctic littoral states initially had some reservations about Asian countries joining the Arctic Council as permanent observers, but this gradually changed leading up to the Arctic Council Kiruna meeting in May 2013.

    As pointed out by several of the authors in this issue, in order to assess the role of these five countries as new stakeholders in Arctic affairs, we must look beyond the Arctic Council to include the role and policies of the Asian countries in other relevant international regimes like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and their engagement in Arctic resources, shipping and governance. Although China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea still play a limited role in some aspects of Arctic affairs, these countries are all legitimate stakeholders capable of influencing the development in the Arctic as well as being influenced by Arctic developments. As Ye Jiang writes in his commentary, because warming in the Arctic affects the whole world, Arctic governance should be embedded as part of global governance, and global norms like the UNCLOS and the IMO rules need to be applied. The case study of Norway’s Arctic policy towards the Asian countries also clearly illustrates the wide range of common interests between Arctic littoral states and the new Asian stakeholders on Arctic affairs, and a growing number of formal meeting places.

    In contrast to Antarctica, which is a land mass, the Arctic is mainly an oceanic area, making the 1982 UNCLOS the most important regime in the Arctic. H.P. Rajan reminds us in his contribution that the drafters of the UNCLOS did not envisage a special regime for the Arctic, as the Convention treats the Arctic Ocean the same as any other ocean. The pivotal role of the UNCLOS was emphasised by the five Arctic littoral states agreeing at the 2008 Ilulissat meeting in Greenland that there is no need to develop a new international regime to cover the Arctic Ocean, and by the five Asian states accepting this arrangement on joining the Arctic Council as observers in 2013. A related issue discussed by several of the contributors are the claims prepared or already submitted by the Arctic littoral states to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

    Another topic explored is the opening of the Arctic Ocean for international shipping. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) between the Kara Gate and the Bering Strait has the potential to become a main transit route for commercial shipping between North East Asia and Europe. China, Japan and South Korea also have the shipbuilding capability to adjust not only their own but the global merchant fleet to meet the demands and requirements of sailing in these challenging waters. Negotiations are taking place within the IMO to develop a Polar Code for Arctic shipping, enhancing safety and environmental protection. However, with only 28 vessel journeys transiting the Northern Sea Route in 2013 with destinations or departures outside Russia, the development of the NSR is still in a very early phase, and as Arild Moe argues in his contribution, Russian ice-breaker capacity and administration of a route it has traditionally looked upon as an integral part of its national transportation infrastructure will impact on the further development.

    How the Arctic may impact on the geopolitics and economics of energy is addressed. The Arctic has been hyped as the next frontier in the global hunt for natural resources. Certainly, surveys confirm that the seabed of the Arctic Ocean is rich in oil and gas, but as discussed by Shebonti Ray Dadwal and several other authors, exploiting these resources is extremely costly, and has to be weighed against developments in the international oil and gas markets. For instance, the shale gas revolution in the United States had an immediate impact on Norway’s northernmost gas project, the ‘Snøhvit’. Furthermore, the main bulk of Arctic oil and gas resources are located within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Arctic littoral states. However, China, Japan and South Korea in particular are not only among the world’s largest importers of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG), but these countries also have the financial resources to invest in the development of Arctic energy.

    The drivers and policies of the five Asian states on the Arctic vary, but climate change, possible changes to the global energy and minerals markets, adherence to international norms like the UNCLOS, and geopolitical considerations are issues of concern to all of the five new Asian stakeholders, including India. Although in their article Uttam Sinha and Arvind Gupta emphasise climate change as the main concern for India in the Arctic, they argue that India keenly follows developments in the Arctic with regard to implementation of the UNCLOS, exploitation of oil, gas and minerals, and potential militarisation in the Arctic, and as a longstanding partner of Russia, India pays great attention to how developments in the Arctic could redefine Sino-Russian relations. In this special issue, we are also introduced to the Arctic policies of China, Japan and South Korea, in addition to India.

    As the main actor in the Arctic, Russia can play the role of gatekeeper or door-opener to wider Asian engagement in the region. Russia needs economic and technological assistance to develop its Arctic resources, and has in recent months opened the way for large Chinese investments as part of an eastward diversification in its energy policy, a development Tom Røseth examines in his contribution. While Røseth sees closer cooperation between China and Russia, he also draws our attention to the fact that Russia would not tolerate Chinese efforts to challenge Russian interests in the Arctic. Shinji Hyodo elaborates on Russia’s increased cooperation with Japan in the security field as a means for Russia to maintain a balance in its relationship with China.

    Increased activity in the Arctic will require an increased demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and a heightened concern for security. However, disaster response could also be a solid basis for increased cooperation among the nations involved, and the Arctic must be regarded as a low-tension area. Still, the Ukrainian crisis is a reminder that there is no guarantee that the current mode of inter-state cooperation in the Arctic will not be negatively affected by deteriorating relations between two or more of the great powers involved in Arctic affairs.

    We hope that this special issue with some compelling perspectives on a number of challenging issues will help to engage the policy community in identifying and exploring opportunities for international cooperation in the Arctic.