In 2013, the Arctic Council made the watershed decision to allow for six new formal observers to be admitted into the organization, five of which were in the Asia-Pacific region: China, India, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. (The sixth was Italy). The move marked a turning point in the ongoing internationalization of Arctic affairs as more governments, including in Asia, formally recognized the emerging economic and scientific as well as strategic value of the region.
Ten years later, several Asian governments have published white papers elucidating their interests in the High North, including China’s oft-analyzed 2018 Arctic Policy document, which emphasized its so-called “near-Arctic state” status.
The politics of the Arctic itself have also undergone considerable transformations due to both climate change strains and the strategic overspill from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The de facto withdrawal of the seven Western Arctic state members of the Arctic Council in early 2022 has also placed the observers, including the “Asia-Arctic five,” in a difficult position, given that the Council was the primary window into regional affairs for non-Arctic governments.
The effects of these changes were illustrated at the recently concluded Arctic Circle Japan Forum (ACJF) held in Tokyo. Keynote speakers included government representatives from each of the five Asian observers, who detailed their engagement plans for the far north going forward. A common theme was the need to deepen relations with Arctic governments and organizations and ensure that as the region develops new forms of cooperation, Asian interests are reflected. Moreover, with the future of the Council in doubt, alternative forms of diplomacy may appear that would allow for the more direct involvement of Asian governments in the Arctic.
China continues to garner much global attention in this region. Debates persist over its ultimate goals in the Arctic, partially due to Beijing’s refusal to condemn Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, as well as U.S. suspicions that the expansion of the Belt and Road into the High North represents a challenge to Arctic security. It was also made clear by China’s Senior Arctic Official Gao Feng that it would be difficult for his country to continue to cooperate with the Council without the involvement of all eight Arctic states, including Russia.
Yet Beijing is hardly the only Asian government augmenting its Arctic interests. Japan views the High North as essential to its national interests, and has been a longstanding contributor in numerous areas of regional research. A new, as-yet unnamed Japanese icebreaker is scheduled to be deployed by 2026, with official representatives emphasizing that the vessel would be a platform for international scientific collaboration, and in particular for the crucial research being done under the aegis of the Arctic Council Working Groups, to which the Asian quintet contribute their expertise.
Tokyo is also matching its broader foreign policy agenda to its Arctic engagement, including with the call for the High North to be a “free and open” space under the rule of law, as articulated in its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision. Emphasizing the connectivity and importance of ocean governance, the government of Kishida Fumio also plans to revise Japan’s 2018 Basic Plan on Ocean Policy and its 2015 Arctic Policy later this year.
South Korea also oversees an extensive boreal scientific program. Seoul launched its KPS satellite system project in 2021 and is constructing a new icebreaker (expected in 2026) to replace the current Araon vessel and allow for improved access to both poles. A committed contributor to five out of the six Arctic Council working groups, Seoul seeks to invest more in northern environmental protection projects, including countering the microplastics problem. Although the Council has long focused on this issue, South Korea will allocate more resources to the threat of plastic pollution in the Arctic and beyond.
Singapore, in addition to having extensive interests in maritime shipping, declared its commitment to fighting rising sea levels through its investments in initiatives to develop comprehensive systems to protect coastlines. It also stresses the importance of the conservation of both Arctic indigenous cultures and fauna, noting its work on the conservation of Arctic migratory birds that stop in Singapore. This work also relates to cooperation between port authorities sharing inter-agency coordination on oil spills, which are a dire environmental issue affecting not only the environment but also active shipping waterways and thus maritime security.
India, after many years of being the “quiet observer” on the Council, has also sought to further develop its own polar competency, releasing its first Arctic policy in 2022 and tying Arctic studies to longstanding research into the Himalayas region, often referred to as the “Third Pole” and the subject of a standalone Arctic Circle conference in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Indian officials have underscored the importance of both economic and human development in the region, and even promoted the practice of yoga at the ACJF as a way of uniting the peoples of the Arctic.
Since 2015, there have been attempts by China, Japan, and South Korea to establish a trilateral dialogue on Arctic diplomacy, with an emphasis on scientific cooperation. Previous joint statements had called for ways of improving research coordination, but so far there have been few concrete actions beyond that. After 2019, the talks were placed on hold due to the pandemic, but it remains unclear how and when the dialogue will be revived, especially given the brittle political relations between the three governments of late. However, at the Tokyo conference, representatives from the three governments were supportive of the talks’ resumption.
Overall, the ACJF was another reminder of the roles Asia has been playing in internationalizing the Arctic, despite the large number of security challenges the High North is facing.
The ACJF’s parent organization, the Arctic Circle Assembly, was founded in 2013 and designed to be inclusive and offer non-Arctic actors a stage for dialogue with Arctic governments and with each other. It has since demonstrated the importance of supporting scientific cooperation to address the challenges in the Arctic without political hindrances. With the status of the Arctic Council uncertain, these sorts of Track II events, as well as bilateral meetings, will allow Asian governments to continue to engage the Arctic.
Despite a decade of accomplishments, Asia-Arctic diplomacy still faces several challenges, the foremost being how the Arctic Council will operate with the intractable diplomatic split between Russia and the West. With Norway assuming the Council’s chair in May of this year, Asian observer governments expressed hopes that the handover will represent a window for reflection on the Council’s work and priorities.
At the ACJF, the Asia-Arctic Ambassadors and representatives called for strengthened communication-building on previous initiatives, including via particular embassies, in signaling important messages on their Arctic interests, the resumption of joint projects, and the pursuit of new ones, as well to contribute to the evolution of the Arctic Council work in an increasingly inclusive way. At a time when Asia-Pacific security is becoming more fraught, the Arctic remains an oasis of sorts in which Asian governments can jointly affirm their commitment to protecting the world’s most fragile environments.