How Asian Countries Are Making Their Way Into the Arctic

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How Asian Countries Are Making Their Way Into the Arctic

Scientific research provides a doorway for Asian countries to pursue their interests in the Arctic.

How Asian Countries Are Making Their Way Into the Arctic

Snow is seen on the Ny-Alesund research center in Svarlbard, Norway on October 19, 2015. Here, 11 nations including Norway, Germany, France, Britain, India, and South Korea study issues such as climate change.

Credit: REUTERS/Anna Filipova

On September 28, 2016 Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China announced the launch of the Russian-Chinese Polar Engineering and Research Center. The new center will “engage in studies intended to promote industrial development of the Arctic,” including development of ice-resistant platforms and frost-resistant concrete for use in polar regions, as well as studying the effects of ice loads on ships and reliability of various engineering structures on ice.

In the past several years, involvement in Arctic scientific research has become a distinct feature of Asian states’ foreign policy. One of the core reasons is that countries are eager to obtain scientific knowledge about the causes of climate change in the Arctic, and what impacts this will have on the states’ environments and economic activity. According to Chinese experts, for example, climate change in the Arctic has a negative impact on China’s food security, due to the increasing risk of flooding in coastal regions, where major agricultural areas are located. India is also concerned about the possible influence of climate change in the Arctic on the Indian monsoon, which is crucial to its agriculture.

The second reason that pushes Asian states to enhance their involvement in Arctic scientific projects is to justify their growing interests in Arctic issues and secure their presence in the region by highlighting the global impact of climate change in the high north.

International Arctic Fora

There are three main tracks that Asian countries follow in order to pursue their Arctic scientific diplomacy goals. The first includes participation in international Arctic cooperation mechanisms. In 2013, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore obtained observer status in the Arctic Council (AC), and some of these counties have also become members of prestigious organizations and fora such as the International Arctic Science Committee, Ny-Ålesund Science Managers Committee, and International Polar Year. In the long-term perspective, active involvement in the work of such fora could be used as a background to legitimate Asian states’ assertive participation in elaboration of future governance in the Arctic. Several Asian experts have already called for more active involvement in Arctic governance affairs.

Discussions are also being held concerning strengthening the observer status in the Arctic Council, particularly by providing Asian members with more rights in decision-making processes in the working groups of the AC. One of the latest examples of this trend was negotiations on a new Agreement on Enhancing Arctic Scientific Cooperation, which were held in Ottawa, Canada in July 2016. Observers, along with the Arctic states, were given an opportunity to take part in preparing provisions for this intergovernmental document.

Joint Scientific Projects

The second track see Asian states’ active involvement in Arctic scientific research through the implementation of joint projects with the international science community. In particular, Asian states established themselves scientifically by opening research stations on Svalbard, Norway and by conducting scientific expeditions in the Arctic Ocean. Among them, China has become the most active player, having increased the number of scientific endeavors in the region in the past few years. Since the late 1990s, China has conducted seven research expeditions to the North Pole. The state’s annual spending on Antarctic and Arctic expeditions is $15 million.

Recently, China also opened a Chinese-Icelandic Aurora Observatory in Kárhól in the north of Iceland to “research the northern lights in cooperation with Icelandic research institutions.” Beijing is also keen to enhance its scientific cooperation with other Arctic states and has spoken to the Canadian government about opening an Arctic research base in the Northwest Territories.

The Republic of Korea also takes part in Arctic research projects as a member of international research teams. For example, in 1999 two Korean scientists conducted research with the Geological Survey of Japan, and in August 2000 joint research was conducted with the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. Korea was the first Asian country to issue an official Arctic policy document, the 2013 Pan-Government Arctic Policy Master Plan. In the document, Korea announced itself to be a polar leading nation that opens a sustainable future for the Arctic. One of the mains goals is to build an Arctic partnership that contributes to the international community.

As for Japan, in 1998 it became a co-sponsor of the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) at the University of Alaska that enables researchers from various nations to carry out joint research programs that build “an integrated understanding of the Arctic… with clear and accurate conceptualization of the role of the Arctic in the broader global system.”

Developing Domestic Arctic Expertise

Finally, the third track aims to establish and promote internal expertise in various areas in order to contribute scientifically to the global understanding of ongoing changes in the Arctic, as well as to promote the scientific and political interests of Asian countries. In the past several years there has been an increase in the number of Arctic publications by Asian experts. Although natural science topics have prevailed, issues such as Arctic geopolitics, Arctic governance, and Asian policy in the Arctic region were also widely discussed by Asian scholars.

Another vivid examples is the founding in 2013 of the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center (CNARC) located in Shanghai, which provides a platform for academic cooperation to increase knowledge of the Arctic and to promote cooperation between Nordic and Chinese scientists for sustainable development of North.

In 2015 the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology of Japan launched a new five-year project called Arctic Challenge for Sustainability (ArCS). This project aims to explore the changes in the climate and environment, clarify their effects on human society, and provide accurate projections and environmental assessments.

To share knowledge, Asian countries are hosting Arctic conferences, including the Arctic Science Summit Week, organizing Arctic summer schools, and launching educational programs and courses. For instance, Singapore has established a postgraduate scholarship for Arctic indigenous peoples, and South Korea has launched the Korea Arctic Academy.

To sum up, involvement in Arctic scientific research addresses Asian states’ policy goals in the Arctic and outside of the region. First, the current discussion (especially in mass media) concerning the coming assertive role of  Asian states in the Arctic region and thus the emerging possibility of a conflict erupting with the Arctic states, pushes Asian counties to get a foothold in the region through science, while assessing their security and economic interests. Second, scientific research could be viewed as a starting point for the future development of relations with the Arctic states or as a tool to safeguard existing relations. For example, despite diplomatic tensions between Norway and China, the two countries have continued joint scientific research in the Arctic in particular. Finally, scientific activities could also be seen as a vital contribution to the states’ international image by advancing global knowledge about the causes of the rapidly changing Arctic environmental system and its impact on the global community.

Nadezhda Filimonova is Assistant to the Vice Rector for Development at Russian State Hydrometeorological University. 

Svetlana Krivokhizh, Ph.D., is Associate professor at National Research University Higher School of Economics, Saint-Petersburg, Russia