Opinion: There’s a Strong Case for an Asian Arctic Dialogue

Between hosting the Arctic Circle Japan Forum and China-India-Russia scientific cooperation, there is an international appetite for Asian states to play a great role in restoring Arctic cooperation, argues Calvin Heng.

By Calvin Heng - August 22, 2023
The “Contributions of Observer States to the Future of the AC” Panel at the Arctic Circle Japan Forum (Image Source: Arctic Circle)

On a dimly lit stage, set against an azure backdrop tinged with touches of white as though to mimic the very essence of a glacial landscape, five suited men settled into their armchairs. The date was March 5th, 2023, the second day of the Arctic Circle Japan Forum (ACJF). Imprinted on the backdrop was a tessellation of Arctic Circle logos—white silhouettes holding hands around a polar projection of the globe. From afar, the outline resembled a snowflake. 

In a similar way, one would be forgiven if the overall sight of five representatives from the Arctic Council (AC) Asian observer states—Japanese Ambassador for International Economic Affairs and Arctic Affairs Takewaka Keizo, South Korean Arctic Ambassador Hong Youngki, Chinese Special Representative for Arctic Affairs Gao Feng, Singaporean Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs Sam Tan, and the de facto Indian Arctic Ambassador, Joint Secretary RADM (Ret) Monty Khanna—seemed nondescript and familiar. Upon closer inspection of the historical record, one would soon realise how unprecedented the attendance was—it was the first time all five Arctic ambassadors were present at an Arctic Circle Forum hosted in Asia, even though three such fora had already been held.

Attendance aside, the grander significance of this panel lies in its title: “Contributions of Observer States to the Future of the AC”. The fact that the “future” was in question is a thinly-veiled hint at how the Russian invasion of Ukraine had caused the AC—and by association, the Arctic Science Ministerial (ASM)—to be at an unprecedented impasse. 

It is a given that much crucial Arctic research simply cannot proceed without Russia. Permafrost covers two-thirds of Russian territory, or 11 million km2, constituting about 50% of the 22.8 million km2  of permafrost sprawled across the Northern Hemisphere. Absent Russian monitoring data, permafrost researchers elsewhere would have data gaps that inhibit time-series projections. Climate change does not discriminate even as those who hasten it do.

Still image of the largest permafrost crater in the world—the Batagaika crater in Russia’s Sakha Republic taken in July 2023. The one-kilometer “long gash” is the product of permafrost melting (Image Source: Reuters)

Neither is there any appetite to resume cooperation. Even though Norway took over the Chairship in May in a fashion the High North News aptly called “a diplomatic work of art,” its Senior Arctic Official Chair Morten Høglund cautioned in no uncertain terms that “it will not be business as usual.” 

The instinctive alternative—establishing an “Arctic 7”—is so untenable it is as good as a metaphor for non-starters. As Professor Timo Koivurova of the University of Lapland incisively observed, “without Russia, half of the Arctic disappears from the remit of the Arctic Council, making it difficult to consider the body as representative of the whole region”.

For the Asian observers, Arctic cooperation is limited by the degree to which the AC and ASM can resume, which is limited at best. The alternative is to rely on other multilateral or minilateral organizations, but as my analysis with Eyck Freymann for the Belfer Center demonstrates, none can count all five in their membership.

Thus, there is a case for establishing an Asian Arctic Dialogue (AAD)—expanding the existing Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic between China, Japan, and South Korea (established in 2015 but last held in 2019) to include India and Singapore. Ever since I independently mooted this idea at the Harvard Kennedy School’s 8th Arctic Innovation Lab, CAPT Anurag Bisen (Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) and Professor Zhao Long (Shanghai Institutes of International Studies) have also made the same suggestion. Given its traction among Asian Arctic experts, I believe the idea is worth a dedicated, in-depth examination.

The three Arctic ambassadors from Japan (Eiji Yamamoto), China (Gao Feng), and South Korea (Kang Jeong-sik) at the Third Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic held in Shanghai five years ago (Image Source: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Why it could work, and well

First, since expanding the Trilateral Dialogue follows a natural logic, the signal sent could be controlled. Historically, organizational expansion inevitably sends messages. Look no further than the “Arctic identity” debate leading up to the Kiruna Ministerial Meeting that brought in the five Asian observers in the first place. However, since the AC observer states fall into two neat regional groupings—Europe and Asia—the AAD can be framed as the Dialogue growing into its rightful potential. In the absence of unnecessary controversy, the expansion could then be framed as an attempt to bring unity and renewed cooperation to the Arctic. 

Having the AAD would also ensure regular, high-level dialogue between the Asian observers. The ACJF was a long-overdue instance of full attendance, but there is no guarantee it marks a permanent shift. Having an institution would commit each state to structured cooperation and time-sensitive updates. It would also allow the Asian observers to host Arctic conferences as a neutral bloc, for acting individually could invite suspicions given their differing stances on the Russia-Ukraine War. This move could also provide the impetus for India to finally appoint an official ambassador.

The Trilateral Dialogue’s focus on scientific cooperation bodes well for the AAD to provide a relatively neutral platform to compartmentalize issues and incrementally engage Russian scientists. There is already momentum in this direction. Russia hosted Chinese and Indian scientists for a conference on permafrost thawing in Yakutsk in March 2023. Moreover, as Bisen first observed, Russia specially invited India and China to its last ASM the following month. Since such cooperation is already happening, the key is to draw from the lessons of Kiruna and ensure it occurs with all Asian observers involved. That would go a long way in reducing any stigma towards indirect information sharing in both directions. Recognizing the sensitivities involved, a stepped and flexible approach is also in order. The observers could first engage the Arctic 7, before bringing in international organizations with Russian representation, such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. When the geopolitical situation permits, full restoration of cooperation could then be pursued.

It is possible

Between hosting the ACJF and China-India-Russia scientific cooperation, there is an international appetite for Asian states to play a great role in restoring Arctic cooperation. Indeed, at the ACJF, the three East Asian countries signalled their intention to resume the Trilateral Dialogue.

The very fact that Zhao and Bisen both called for an AAD and discussed it at a recent roundtable (co-hosted by the Institute for China-America Studies [ICAS] and University of Alberta) inspires confidence too. After all, they both hail from influential state-linked thinktanks, rendering their views a reasonable barometer for China and India’s policy stances—in fact, Bisen helped to draft India’s first Arctic Policy (2022), while Zhao is an expert in the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center.

Finally, the proposition is attractive because no other regional organization other than ASEAN brings the five Asian observers together. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar recently credited India’s collaboration with ASEAN for helping to “energise” its ties with China, Japan, and South Korea. The AAD could contribute more of the same.

Screenshot of the roundtable titled “Roles of Asian Observers in Arctic Governance: Adapting to a Changing Arctic Council” organized co-hosted by the ICAS Maritime Affairs Program & China Institute, University of Alberta. CAPT Anurag Bisen and Professor Zhao Long are pictured on the second row (left to right) (Image Source: ICAS)

When can it happen?

There are two foreseeable opportunities ahead. The first would be to announce the expansion at the Trilateral Dialogue’s birthplace: The China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit. The three foreign ministers announced in July that the Summit would resume for the first time since 2018. The second opportune occasion would be a future Arctic Circle Forum held in India, who is the only one among the five to have yet to host one.

Cooperation has long been the defining identity of the Arctic region since Mikhail Gorbachev called for it to be a “zone of peace” during the heat of the Cold War. We now face a similar crisis. In a twist to a popular cliché that does not bear mention: perhaps what happens outside the Arctic should not stay out either.

Calvin Heng is a Singaporean and formerly a Graduate Research Assistant (2022–23) at the Arctic Initiative, a project group housed in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Opinions expressed in this article are solely his own.

This article was adapted from a project Calvin presented at the Harvard Kennedy School’s 8th Arctic Innovation Lab, which won the “Most Promising Solution” Award in the Governance/Geopolitics Category. The author thanks Dr. Jennifer Spence (Senior Fellow, Arctic Initiative) and Halla Logadóttir (Director-General, Icelandic National Energy Authority) for advising his project.