By Prof. Klaus Dodds
Last month, I was in Singapore, working with a colleague and Royal Holloway PhD graduate, Dr Chih Yuan Woon at the National University of Singapore.
With the generous support of the British Academy through the “International Partnership and Mobility Scheme”, we brought together 10 speakers from Asia, North America and Europe to think about Asia’s interests in the Arctic region and beyond (see below).
The starting premise of the workshop is that the Arctic is increasingly being described as a ‘global Arctic’, rather than say a region defined by eight Arctic states, indigenous peoples and northern communities, and/or circumpolar networks and relationships. As I have noted before, the term ‘global Arctic’ needs carefully unpacking because just like other terms that are enjoying political traction in the UK (such as #globalBritain), they cover a multitude of proverbial sins.
We might use the term ‘global Arctic’ to draw attention to growing global interest in the Arctic – in its ecologies, economies, environments and territories. Strikingly, ‘global Arctic’ became a lot more prevalent in political discourse when Asian countries such as China, Singapore and South Korea became observers to the Arctic Council in May 2013. It acts as a shorthand term to imply, in the main, that there is a great deal more interest from ‘outsiders’ in the region.
As our contributors reflected, discussions about the ‘global Arctic’ attract both topographical and topological interventions. Singapore’s relationships with Arctic states and peoples is illustrative, as the country builds relationships with indigenous organizations in the north and played host to the 2015 Arctic Circle Singapore Forum working closely with the Singapore Maritime Institute. Having appointed an Arctic Ambassador, the Singaporean government has also actively pursued bilateral relationships with Arctic states such as Iceland and Norway.
Singapore is also interested in climate change and the possibility of further sea level rise is a genuine concern for a low-lying city-state with a population of 5.5 million people. Singapore’s port is a global hub for container traffic and the republic is also a hub for the financial services sector (see below). The country’s port is scheduled to expand considerably between now and 2040. Economically and environmentally, Singaporean ministers have emphasised connectivity with the Arctic region – global trade routes and global climate change matter.
This interest in the Arctic does not generate the sort of coverage that is routine for Chinese polar interest – which tends to be more critical (even suspicious) of how the Arctic might ‘fit in’ with China’s recently proposed “One Belt, One Road” initiative. But in the case of Singapore, we have a good example of how Asian states and their relationships with the ‘global Arctic’ not only create new forms of identity politics (tropical-polar connections), but also suggestive of how new regional relationships within Asia might develop on Arctic matters. Singapore, Korea and Japan all have Arctic ambassadors and the three countries have shown a commitment to public engagement and outreach activities with their own citizens and Arctic communities.
Singapore’s relationship with the Arctic is likely to take on ever more diverse forms. One area to watch in the future might be closer cooperation with Russia over areas of mutual interest. In 2016, the two countries’ representatives spoke about cooperation in Arctic research and considered how Singapore’s world-leading drilling platform technology and offshore oil and gas engineering might benefit a Russia hit by EU and American sanctions. Another will be the growth in events and exhibitions addressing the Arctic and climate change that will be based in Singapore and contribute to what we might think of as a popular consciousness raising. In 2017, the ‘Elysium Artists for the Arctic’ exhibition was held in the city-state before transferring onto other global destinations.
What the workshop demonstrated well was how Asian states are being ‘observed’ closely by Arctic states and near- Arctic states such as the UK and Germany. They are also ‘observing’ the Arctic and increasingly making their own ‘observations’ about how they fit into the global Arctic. The days are long gone when some people used to appear bemused that a ‘tropical’ country like Singapore would be interested in the cold places of the planet.
Klaus Dodds and Chih Yuan Woon’s workshop ‘‘OBSERVING’ THE ARCTIC: ASIAN STATES AND THE (GEO)POLITICS OF INVOLVEMENT IN THE ARCTIC COUNCIL’ was generously funded by the British Academy’s International Partnership and Mobility Grant (2016-2018) and they expect an edited book to follow with National University of Singapore Press.
Klaus’s latest book on Ice will be published by Reaktion in 2018.