Japan, Korea, Singapore and the Arctic Sea Lanes
Image Credit: Ash via Flickr

Japan, Korea, Singapore and the Arctic Sea Lanes

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When the Arctic Council admitted a bevy of new official observer states to its ranks to great fanfare in May 2013, China and India’s accession dominated the headlines. But three other key Asian nations – Japan, Singapore and South Korea – also joined this intergovernmental forum for coordinating among Arctic nations and are no less poised to play a part in the future of Arctic development. Like their larger Asian neighbors, Japan, Singapore and South Korea aim to participate in energy resource development and climate change research in the polar north. Yet the primary interest driving the Arctic engagement of all three countries is the increasing accessibility of northern waters to commercial shipping.

The progressive opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) above Eurasia’s northern rim carries wide-reaching implications. Shipping via the NSR has the potential to drastically reduce sailing distances, costs, and times between northern Europe and East Asia. Under current conditions, shipping between major Japanese and South Korean ports such as Tokyo and Busan and northern Europe ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg must pass through a series of heavily trafficked chokepoints, including the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. The sea lanes connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, meanwhile, pass between a strife-riven Somalia and an unstable Yemen, meaning international shipping interests may potentially face security risks in the Gulf of Aden well into the future. With scientific projections forecasting a warmer Arctic over the course of the 21st century, passages now choked by sea ice poses may become progressively more practicable, making European-Asian shipping by way of the Arctic Ocean increasingly viable.

Initial estimates suggest the current 40-day, 22,000-kilometer voyage from northern Europe to East Asia (routed through the Suez Canal and Strait of Malacca) could be transformed into a 30-day, 15,000-kilometer trip via the NSR. That potential reduction, coupled with the ongoing security risks surrounding overreliance on shipping via the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden, is leading Japanese and South Korean commercial interests to bet on the gradual emergence of the NSR as a valuable alternative, and to position their investments accordingly. Mere months after gaining an observer seat at the Arctic Council, for example, Japan’s Asahi Kasei Chemicals Corp. performed a test run of the NSR, importing 80,000 tons of oil products from Norway. South Korea, meanwhile, advanced plans late last year to assist Russia in upgrading port infrastructure along its northern coast in preparation for a time – possibly as early as 2050, according to a recent University of California Los Angeles study – when seasonal sea-ice coverage will have declined to such an extent that ships transiting the NSR may not need ice-breaking escorts during the months of June, July, August and September.

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Well positioned to capitalize upon the commercial benefits that increased Arctic shipping may provide, Japan and South Korea are hopeful that the NSR will become increasingly safe and accessible in the medium to long terms. For Singapore, however, the prospect of expanding Arctic shipping has entirely different implications. With the rise of maritime traffic above the Arctic Circle, a growing number of international shipping interests may choose to bypass the Strait of Malacca, the congested maritime transit corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans that Singapore has anchored for centuries.

Since gaining an observer seat at the Arctic Council last May, Singapore has been using its position primarily to gain insights from permanent Council members about the emerging outlook for increased Arctic shipping. Singapore’s position as the critical maritime crossroads connecting European and Asian markets brought this small city-state enormous wealth and outsized geopolitical influence, making it a top global hub for oil refining, finance and ship repair. It is also one of the most active seaports in the world. Increasingly busy with each year, between 2005 and 2012, the total cargo volume passing through Singapore rose 27 percent, from 423,267,600 tonnes to 538,012,100 tonnes. Despite such impressive growth in recent maritime traffic, the long-term rise of the NSR as a commercial maritime corridor might threaten shipping’s role as key sector of the Singaporean economy.

In the near-term, however, Singapore’s position as a behemoth of international shipping seems secure. Even under the most favorable climatic conditions for NSR shipping in the coming years, the passage will be navigable only during the summer months, when the extent of sea-ice coverage is at its lowest. Depending on seasonal environmental conditions, ships passing through the Arctic Ocean off northern Russia’s coast will still require ice-breaking capability, which could add to shipping companies’ fuel costs, heighten safety risks due to insufficient local search-and-rescue capacity and repair facilities, and add to reluctance to use the NSR as a primary European-Asian shipping corridor.

The ultimate value of the NSR as a commercially feasible route remains for now something of an open question. While Singapore holds its breath, Japanese and South Korean shipping interests are hoping they will gain a competitive edge from Arctic maritime trade as the polar north continues to warm in the years and decades ahead. With eyes focused on the commercial benefits that the Arctic could provide them deep into the 21st century, these two countries appear more than willing to contend with the unforgiving environment of the polar north in the meantime.

Russell Sticklor was previously a research analyst and Katherine Cima an intern with the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC.

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