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Asia in the Arctic

A trio in tune

Rivals in their own region, China, Japan and South Korea are finding they have common interests in the Far North
Hands up for exceptionalism (Photo: CAA)

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Over the past year, there have been efforts by the three major governments of north-eastern Asia, namely China, Japan and South Korea, to improve their diplomatic relationship in the face of on-going differences over maritime security, including the status of the East China Sea, as well as the historical legacy of Japan during the Second World War and the recent rise of China as a regional and international power.

In November, leaders from the three states met in Seoul to hold their first trilateral meeting since 2012, when difficult political conditions had resulted in the suspension of the talks. The meeting between Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s PM, and Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s president, produced a Joint Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia, and the summit was widely regarded as a promising first step in cooling the sometimes-toxic diplomatic conditions in the region.

Although the discussions avoided many controversial issues, including differences over Asian regional security, the focus was placed on economic and energy co-operation, education and culture, and there was a brief but noteworthy mention of opening the door to collaboration in Arctic affairs.

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Specifically, the declaration stated: “Acknowledging the global importance of Arctic issues, we will launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore co-operative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic.”

Although it is too early to determine the form which an Arctic dialogue might take in the coming months, the addition of this statement to the final document produced by the Seoul summit was an acknowledgement of the growing importance of the Far North to the foreign policies of north-eastern Asia. As well, there is the possibility of the Arctic offering an opportunity for the three states to develop a stronger dialogue based on the compatibility of their circum-polar policies to date.

Emerging Arctic issues, including scientific interests, economic development, and regime-building, could and should develop into a more formalised forum for policy discussion and co-ordination for the north-eastern Asian troika, and there are many avenues for this to develop.

All three states were admitted to the Arctic Council as observers in 2013, and unlike the western European observer states in the council, such as France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, which could point to their long histories of Arctic exploration, Arctic identity-building in East Asia has been largely based on the development of scientific diplomacy and potential research partnerships with Arctic states. For example, China, Japan and South Korea all maintain research facilities at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, and all have used ice-breaking vessels for various polar studies. The three states have also frequently acknowledged the common threat of Arctic climate change to their socio-economic interests.

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More recently, all three states have also identified their economic interests in the region, with the growing potential of the Northern Sea Route at the top of the list. All three states have expressed great interest in the future use of the NSR for faster trade with Europe. Tokyo’s recently released Arctic white paper illustrated the potential benefits the NSR holds for the Japanese economy, and called upon the country to participate in future rule-making initiatives regarding the route.

The government of South Korea assumed a similar stance with its Arctic policy documents in 2013, noting that the opening of the NSR was compatible with Seoul’s developing ‘Eurasia Initiative’ which called for the development of Asia-Europe links. Finally, China has also recognised the importance of the NSR to its growing European trade interests, as demonstrated by the 2013 and 2015 transits by modified Chinese cargo vessel. There is much scope for the three states to build a discourse on the safe and effective use of the NSR by Asian concerns.

Although energy and commodity prices remain low at present, the three states have recognised the potential importance of the Arctic, and have already pursued various forms of resource diplomacy with circumpolar states. For example, Chinese mining firms continue to show interest in future projects in Greenland, and the Korea Resources Corporation (KORES) established a partnership with Greenland’s NunaMinerals in late 2013 to survey for rare-earth elements at Qeqertaasaq. Also, Seoul sponsored the opening of a ‘Korea Corner’ at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland) in May of this year to further advertise the potential for bilateral cooperation.

In September of this year, it was announced that China’s $40 billion Silk Road Fund had acquired a 9.9% stake in the ambitious Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia. From a trading viewpoint, since 2006, South Korea has had a free trade agreement with Iceland and Norway via the European Free Trade Area and FTA talks between Japan and the EFTA are ongoing; China has had a free trade agreement in place with Iceland since mid-2013.

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In short, there exist many potential foundations for an ‘Asia-Arctic’ dialogue on the governmental and sub-governmental levels, given the growing number of shared Arctic interests between the governments of north-eastern Asia. As a recent article explained, it has also been in the interests of all the Asian observers in the Arctic Council to accentuate the idea of the Arctic as a global concern as opposed to strictly a regional one, out of concerns about being left out of not only the developing economic benefits of the region but also the ongoing process of rule- and norm-making in the Far North.

As recently as two years ago, there were many predictions of a resource scramble in the Arctic that could have involved the major powers of East Asia. The story has unfolded much differently, and although there remains the possibility of future competition between the north-east Asian triad for economic (and diplomatic) goods, the call for a trilateral dialogue on the Arctic that appeared after the Seoul summit is a promising sign that the region is being recognised as a potential agora for improved Asian co-operation on Far North affairs.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (Nupi) in Oslo.