Singapore, polar politics and the melting Arctic

Joseph Chinyong Liow Today Online 2 Aug 13;

Singapore’s recent accession to the Arctic Council as an observer has, understandably, raised eyebrows, given how it is more familiar with monsoons than frost. That said, there is good reason why this city-state at the Equator is casting its eyes so far northwards.

The Republic was one of six countries — the others being China, India, Japan, South Korea and Italy — whose applications for permanent observer status were accepted on May 15, at the annual ministerial meeting in Sweden of the Arctic Council — comprising Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland.

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and melting of the glacial ice has accelerated over the last decade through natural variation, greenhouse gas emissions and other human-induced changes.

According to scientists, the vast majority of ice in the Arctic today is “first-year” ice. The long-term implications of these environmental changes for Singapore, whose highest point is the 163m Bukit Timah Hill, cannot be over-emphasised.


The Arctic has for a long time been somewhat of a backwater in international affairs, and received short shrift on the global agenda. Not so today. Talk of the opening up of the Northeast Passage along the Siberian coast, ironically facilitated by the melting of Arctic ice, has drawn increasing international attention.

Indeed, the 46 transits that took place in 2012 were a noticeable increase from the previous year, and have commonly been cited as a testament to the potential of the North-east Passage. Yet, it also behooves us to be cautious about overplaying the potential for an alternative trade route through the North-east Passage.

The reality is that the 46 transits, while significant, pale in comparison to the 18,000 transits that were made through the Suez Canal over the same period. Furthermore, none of the 46 transits were return journeys and none were container ships.

The potential of a new trading route is not the only draw. According to oft-cited estimates from the US Geological Survey, up to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of undiscovered oil deposits lie in the Arctic region. Some have taken this to be the gospel truth, while others have disputed these findings.

Nevertheless, if the broadsheets are to be believed, the mere potential of discovery of natural resources has fuelled this metaphorical rush to the Arctic.


The point is that in the context of this increased global interest in the Arctic region, the council is likely to grow in importance in the coming years — hence Singapore’s interest in it. To be sure, although the mandate of the council is more policy-shaping than policy-making, nor is it a treaty-based entity, it nevertheless has a legal framework in place.

This is expressed in the form of the Ilulissat Declaration of May 2008, which adopts UNCLOS as the legal framework for the delimitation of maritime boundaries among the Arctic states.

In the event that greater interest cascades into competition for resources, or if the temptation to challenge hitherto agreed boundaries arises because of that, the existence of this legal framework is reassuring.

In addition, the council also concluded its first legally binding agreement on search and rescue at its May 2011 meeting in Nuuk, Greenland. As it seeks to build greater diplomatic clout, it is coming up against two obstacles that — while still nascent — nevertheless, warrant careful consideration.


First, given that the opening up of a North Sea passage is central to the emerging strategic equation at least of the Asian members, there will undoubtedly be increased scrutiny of Russia’s role. Russia will be keen to demonstrate that it remains a player of consequence in the big league, and Arctic policy allows it to underscore this.

Whether it will play a constructive role, however, remains to be seen. Last year, Moscow introduced legislation that made it compulsory for all traffic plying the North Sea Route to engage Russian ice-breakers. This is all well and good, but for the fact that a large chunk of the Russian diesel ice-breaker fleet is ageing, with many vessels due to be decommissioned over the next few years, while their nuclear powered replacements remain very much still in the pipeline.

In addition to this, Russian port facilities along the Siberian coast will also need improvement, as will navigation and hydrographic support systems. The challenge lies not in Russian engineering and technology, which are undoubtedly competent, but in cumbersome bureaucracy and glacial decision-making.


Second, tensions have crept into the council between some members who favour an inclusive forum and others who have adopted a more exclusivist stance.

While this tension may at present still be nugatory, it is nevertheless discernible. It is premised on the belief, held by some council members, that Arctic states are custodians of the region, and hence are entitled to appropriate the rights of Arctic governance because Arctic issues are of most immediate relevance to them.

This anxiety was profoundly expressed during the deliberations over new observers at the recently concluded Kiruna meeting, when reticence on the part of Russia and Canada suggested their discomfort with expansion of observers, presaging challenges to Arctic unity.

So what can be done? For starters, the structure of the council itself may well require revision. While it has moved to accept new observers, their precise roles remain to be determined. Clearly, the observers have an interest in Arctic affairs, and by virtue of that would want to be involved in deliberations.

Bearing in mind that some older observers such as Poland and France have previously expressed frustration at the lack of opportunity to provide input at the ministerial meetings, the council would do well to quickly identify the mechanisms and vehicles that would facilitate integration of the observers. This also means that the council will have to look at how to bring observers on board the six working groups that currently exist and that, for all intents and purposes, operate in almost autonomous fashion.

These are demanding, but also exciting, times for the council. Arctic issues are today more crucial than ever to human well-being and progress, and hence have come to warrant greater attention globally.

The Arctic Council is the best game in town insofar as the collective management of Arctic resources is concerned. And this is precisely why it needs to establish and maintain a viable regional order in the region: One that can fulfil the Arctic’s growing economic and strategic potential, while at the same time maintain the delicate balance between nature and human progress.


Joseph Chinyong Liow is Professor of Comparative and International Politics and Associate Dean at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University Singapore.