‘Three to Get Ready’: Northeast Asian Neighbours Discuss Joint Arctic Policies

[Photo by Pixabay]
To put it mildly, this month has seen a flurry of high-level government meetings covering a variety of international affairs. From the rancorous G-7 meeting, (or possibly ‘G6+1’, given the ostracism of US President Donald Trump at the gathering due to American tariffs and the country’s recent withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement), in Charlevoix, Québec, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit held in Qingdao which included Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, diplomats have been logging many miles of late. This, while not even taking into account the upcoming watershed summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore next week.

Overshadowed by all of these events has been the third annual Northeast Asian trilateral dialogue on the Arctic, which was held in Shanghai [In Chinese] this week. Although the announcements following the meeting were modest, the gathering nonetheless represented a distinct example of non-Arctic states seeking to coordinate their engagement of the region, as well as a means for three states, China, Japan and South Korea, to engage in robust scientific diplomacy despite the numerous political and security differences facing the trio. The first trilateral meeting on the Arctic took place in Seoul in April 2016, in the wake of a leadership summit in November 2015 between the three governments, which aimed to restore political relations previously experiencing an especially difficult period. The statement released after the 2015 meeting included the announcement that ‘acknowledging the global importance of Arctic issues, we will launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic’.

The three Asian states, along with India, Italy and Singapore, entered the Arctic Council as formal observers in May 2013, and all three expressed interest in the economic opportunities appearing in the Arctic, especially the possibilities of expanded Arctic shipping between Asia and Europe. The initial Seoul meeting, to become an annual event, laid the foundation for mutual cooperation in developing Arctic research and scientific policies, while promoting the region as a zone of peace and sustainable development. The follow-up gathering in Tokyo in June 2017 produced a more formal joint statement [pdf], which outlined mutual goals in Arctic cooperation, including strengthened cooperation within the Arctic Council and its Working Groups, as well as other international organisations relevant to far northern affairs. There was also a call for enhanced scientific cooperation among experts from the three states, including in Arctic environmental affairs.

Although these two Arctic meetings stressed scientific cooperation in the Arctic, there was also a political undercurrent to the overall initiative regarding the roles the three Asian states should play in the region. Although none of the three states have Arctic frontiers, they all have expressed interest in assuming greater roles in current and future Arctic affairs and being accepted by the ‘Arctic Eight’ governments as regional players. South Korea released its first Arctic policy paper [pdf], (also known as the ‘Master Plan’), in December 2013 which outlined the country’s interests in developing partnerships, enhanced scientific research, and the exploration of new business opportunities.

Japan soon followed with its own Arctic policy document, published in October 2015 and released at the Arctic Circle conference that month. The paper was noteworthy, as not only did it include discussion of economic, environmental, and scientific issues in the Arctic, but there was also a small section on the region’s role in Japanese national security, which stated that ‘There is a risk that factors such as opening of new shipping route and the development of natural resources may become a cause for new friction among states.’ China released its Arctic White Paper in January of this year, which was subject to much international scrutiny and underscored Chinese interests in becoming a key regional player, as a ‘near-Arctic state’. Out of the three Northeast Asian governments, Beijing has been especially vocal about the need for non-Arctic states to participate in regional governments, noting that states outside of the Arctic should have the right to participate in far northern economic projects.

This week’s trilateral summit on the Arctic, held  in Shanghai, involved Gao Feng, the Special Representative for Arctic Affairs of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Kang Jeong-sik, the Republic of Korea’s Arctic Ambassador, and Arctic Ambassador Eiji Yamamoto with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The welcoming ceremonies for the event were also attended by Shanghai Deputy Mayor Xu Kunlin.

Speakers at the Arctic Circle Forum in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands [Photo by Mingming Shi]
Mr Gao had been a keynote speaker [video] at the recent Arctic Circle conference in Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, where he spoke about the White Paper as well as China as an Arctic stakeholder and his country’s interest in participating in Arctic shipping, (via a ‘Polar Silk Road’), and other sustainable economic activities in connection with the ongoing Belt and Road projects. Mr Kang, who was also a presenter in Tórshavn, discussed [video] the history of Korean Arctic engagement, including research and exploration initiatives, at the event and also confirmed that Seoul was planning to release a revised ‘Master Plan’ before the end of this year. Korea is also building a second icebreaking research vessel to join the Areon, and he affirmed that the next Arctic Circle breakout forum would be held in December this year in Seoul.

The Shanghai meeting ended with a joint statement [pdf], (statement in Chinese here), which outlined the importance of data and other information sharing and the possibility of joint Arctic surveys, with agreements to establish further communications links on Arctic subjects. Support for cooperation with the Arctic Council and other regional organisations was re-affirmed, along with the need to promote peace and stability in the region.

The publication of the Chinese Arctic White Paper and the recent agreement on Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) fishing protocols were also welcomed within the statement. However, there had been previous signs that China’s Arctic policy was being looked at with some wariness in some Japanese political quarters.

In February this year, an editorial [In Japanese] in the conservative Japanese news service Yomiuri Shimbuncriticised the White Paper and Beijing’s emerging Arctic policies, noting that the expansion of China’s Belt and Road (yidai yilu 一带一路) Initiative into the Arctic could have negative effects on Japanese shipping interests as well as its overall maritime security, given the possibility that China may have security interests in the circumpolar north. The article also noted that since the Arctic Council restricted its voting rights exclusively to the eight Arctic states, Japan needed to participate more fully in the creation of new laws in the region. The piece concluded by stating that Tokyo ‘must strengthen its relevant strategy’, given the possibility of the opening of Arctic trade routes might coincide with increased Chinese ship traffic via Japan’s Soya, Tsugaru and Tsushima straits.

Pudong skyline
Shanghai Pudong skyline [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Thus far, these meetings have produced little in terms of concrete regional initiatives beyond pledges for future cooperation, yet these summits have been illustrative of the amount of common ground the three states have relating to Arctic engagement. All three actors, including the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are interested in broadening scientific engagement in the Arctic and all wish to ensure that as the Arctic provides opportunities for greater economic activity in the coming years, that they are not left behind.

Beyond Arctic matters themselves, this annual meeting also represents a significant diplomatic window of opportunity for the three countries, given the number of diplomatic differences the trio are currently facing closer to home. Many of the disputes which have hampered Northeast Asian diplomacy and economic cooperation in recent years have been related to maritime affairs. For example, Beijing and Tokyo remain divided over the boundary of the East China Sea, as well as sovereignty over the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands in the waterway. However, this week also saw the announcement that the Chinese and Japanese governments had agreed to establish a direct communications link to avoid future air or sea incidents in the disputed zones. Japan and South Korea both claim the Dokdo / Takeshima island group, (also known as the Liancourt Rocks), in the Pacific. Japan, under Prime minister Shinzo Abe, has also been moving closer to American and Indian security initiatives, and this month the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces (JMSDF) agreed to join the US and Indian Navy in Malabar exercises off the coast of Guam.

China and South Korea had also clashed diplomatically last year over the agreement between Seoul and Washington to place a missile defence system in South Korean territory to counter potential missile attacks from the north. That system, known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), has been harshly criticised by Beijing as potentially compromising the Chinese military’s own missile capabilities.

All three states also have a strong stake in reaching a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, but there have been strong differences between the governments concerning the resolution of the standoff. While Arctic affairs are unlikely to rise to the very top of the foreign policy agendas for any of the Northeast Asian governments, the Arctic does provide an opportunity for both scientific diplomacy and regional confidence-building to grow and become stronger.