Aki Tonami

In May 2013, after much discussion and speculation, six states were welcomed to become new Observers at the Arctic Council at the Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna. The six states include China, Japan, India, Italy, Singapore and South Korea. This commentary will focus on two of the most prominent new Asian Observer states: China and Japan.

China's interests in the Arctic have continued to attract much attention in 2013. The Chinese government announced that it will boost Arctic research, having acknowledged the role of scientific research for evaluating risks and opportunities in the Arctic. A few weeks after the AC Ministerial Meeting, the Polar Research Institute of China announced plans to establish a China-Nordic Arctic Research Center in Shanghai. The cooperation is based on the existing Icelandic-China cooperation on the Arctic, and will include several Nordic institutes such as the Iceland Center for Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Copenhagen-based Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.


China's interest in the development of Greenland brought much media attention in 2012, when the Greenlandic government passed legislation to allow foreign workers into the country to earn salaries below the local legal minimum wage (Araújo & Cardenal, 2013). This was done in order to meet the request of the Chinese state-owned banks and companies to modify local regulations to allow low-wage Chinese workers to work in Greenland. The Chinese intention to invest in Greenland touched upon sensitive issues of the colonial past of Greenland and Denmark as well as the future direction of Greenland (Sejersen, 2013). The issue of Chinese investment in Greenland was perceived as so important that it became one of the central issues of the Greenlandic national parliamentary election in March 2013 (Scrutton, 2013).

The Siumut party, led by Aleqa Hammond, which has been critical of the Greenlandic government's willingness to accept the Chinese mining companies as well as their investment money, went on to win the election, suggesting that a significant number of Greenlanders are uncomfortable with the Chinese investment money or the conditionality it implied (Mcalister, 2013). Nonetheless, despite rather reluctant reactions from Greenland, the Chinese government appears to maintain its interest to invest in the region. For instance, in early July 2013, a Chinese investment delegation visited Nuuk, Greenland to seek business opportunities there. Approximately 20 representatives from the Chinese National Bank, the CDB, and two Chinese mining companies, formed the delegation (Bech-Bruun, 2013).

Meanwhile, Japan's approach to the Arctic has been more low-profile, yet active. On 19 March 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned a special ambassador in charge of Arctic Affairs (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2013). On 28 March, The Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), a private Japanese policy think-tank focused on foreign affairs and security issues, released a report on Arctic  Governance and Japan's Foreign Strategy. The institute has traditionally had a close relationship with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acting as an external advisor. The report concludes with six policy recommendations for the Japanese government:

  1. Construct a win-win relationship with Arctic coastal states regarding resource exploration and development;
  2. Secure appropriate implementation of UNCLOS;
  3. Build a closer cooperation with the United States on Arctic issues;
  4. Play a leading role in environmental conservation, using Japan's knowledge and environmental technology;
  5. More active Arctic diplomacy;
  6. Strengthen the government system for Arctic policy, such as establishing an Arctic Headquarters within the Cabinet Office.

It remains to be seen whether the Japanese government will implement the recommendations in full, but both the commissioning and tone of the report clearly indicate that Japan has finally recognized the political importance of Arctic affairs. Following this, the Japanese Basic Plan on Ocean Policy was renewed in April. In contrast with the previous version effective until 2012, the new Plan mentioned the Arctic eighteen times, referring mostly to the natural environment and shipping routes in relation to the Arctic (Cabinet Office of Japan, 2013). The Japanese government also included the Arctic in the renewed bilateral science and technology cooperation agreements with Germany and Canada (Embassy China, Japan and the Arctic in 2013 of Japan in Canada, 2013). Idemitsu Petroleum Norge (IPN), a subsidiary of the Idemitsu group, one of Japan's largest energy corporations, has been in the Norwegian Continental Shelf since 1989 (Idemitsu). IPN has been involved in several projects in four oil extraction sites in the region and plans to extract from Knarr with having obtained a license from the Norwegian government (NHK, 2013). Oil production is expected to start in 2014 (Idemitsu).

Chinese and Japanese activities indicate the gradual process of consolidating their Arctic policies. China and Japan see the Arctic less as a strategically crucial point from the traditional security perspective, but more from the viewpoint of economic security and development. It can be said that this is a character of a foreign policy of the "developmental state," which is defined as the seamless web of political, bureaucratic, and moneyed influences that structures economic life in Northeast Asia ( Woo-Cumings, 1999 : 1 ), whereby the state derives its legitimacy from economic growth and seeks to adapt the national economy to changes in the global economy (Low, 2001). For the time being, China appears more than willing to invest more in the Arctic and is attempting to lead the direction of Arctic development. Japan is willing to build incrementally on the achievements it has made so far, maintaining its low-profile position as a non-Arctic state, while at the same time emphasising Japan's past extensive contributions to Arctic research, and Polar research more broadly.


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Aki Tonami is Researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

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