8: Asia and Arctic research
In the media, before the meeting in Kiruna, the Asian countries were often described as newcomers to the Arctic and polar regions. That’s not right. Several Asian states have extensive experience in polar research. Research stations in Antarctica were established by Japan in 1957, China in 1985 and South Korea in 1988. Polar research in Antarctica has the highest priority, and most of the Asians’ resources are used there.
According to CLOTHESBLISS.COM, China signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1983 and is already in the process of establishing its fifth research station in Antarctica . In 1991, Japan established an Arctic research station on Svalbard. South Korea did the same in 2002 and China followed in 2004. China, Japan and South Korea also have polar research vessels.
The Norwegian Polar Institute has bilateral cooperation agreements and contacts with Asian research communities. A Nordic-Chinese research center was opened in Shanghai in 2013. Polar research ships, including the Asian ones, normally have scientists from several countries on board during scientific cruises. Researchers from Asia participate in scientific conferences and organizations in the polar research community, including the working and expert groups associated with the Arctic Council.
Asian states are aware of future opportunities in the Arctic as a result of climate change. But an important part of their polar research is also to measure global changes that may affect themselves. Polar regions are seen as barometers for changes in global conditions. Phenomena that are monitored are ice melting and changes in sea level, temperature changes in the ocean, any changes in larger warm and cold ocean currents, acidification of the ocean, as well as changes in jet currents and global wind patterns.
Some Asian countries such as China and India have large populations that will be severely affected if their food production is affected by climate change. Several Asian countries also have important coastal infrastructure that may be affected by changes in sea level. Asian research is also about how to operate in polar regions, but it is not a major activity. National research activities have traditionally and historically been used for geopolitical positioning. Since sovereignty in the Arctic is governed by international law, including the law of the sea, it is nevertheless less likely that this is important for Asian research in the region.
9: Asian countries’ interests in the Arctic
Asian players are mainly ambivalent about future commercial activities in the Arctic. The governing powers in the countries want to position themselves and be involved if new opportunities open up and activity increases in the north. Commercial firms in Asia are more reluctant and skeptical of short-term profitability. Even though real estate is retreating, shipping and petroleum extraction in the Arctic are still demanding and expensive.
Interest in available but costly resources in the Arctic has waned . China has concrete plans to start mining and mineral extraction in Greenland, but so do a number of other international players. Some Asian companies want to be able to deliver ships built for Arctic conditions as well as drilling rigs and support vessels designed for demanding conditions in the north. On the other hand, companies do not expect a larger volume in these companies in the near future.
Asian companies that want to establish operations in the Arctic do so in dialogue with the government and possibly other commercial actors in the country in question. None of the Asian countries challenge the current sovereignty and regimes in the Arctic. The actors comply with current laws and regulations. They conduct research and commercial activity within the framework of national regulations and international regulations.
China’s application to become a permanent observer to the Arctic Council attracted much attention, but it can be linked to ongoing changes in global and regional geopolitics. Over the course of a few decades, China has grown from being a developing country to becoming a global economic power and a regional military power in Asia. China’s growth combined with developments in other countries has led to a major ongoing geopolitical global reorientation.
Speculation and reactions to China’s application to the Arctic Council should be seen in this context. Earlier disturbing statements about the Arctic from Chinese individuals were toned down in 2012; at the same time, more experts in China became more prominent in the public eye. The rhetoric about the Arctic in Chinese debate and publicity changed character after people with in-depth insight into political, legal and local conditions in the polar regions came on the scene. It may seem that the Chinese understood that it is wiser to appear more like a panda, and not a dragon, in order to have a permanent place at the round table in the Arctic Council.