Arctic policy of Asian nations was dynamically changing in the last decade. There are doubts what to do right now. The prize for winners looks less attractive; the road will be longer and harder. But,‘Asian Tigers’ are not accustomed to retreat.

Just a decade ago Asia – Pacific nations did not show any particular interest to the Arctic. Limited research activities connected with global climate changes and environmental protection were conducted by Chinese and Koreans in Svalbard, Norway. Japanese scientists were more interested in Antarctic exploration where they counted surviving blue whales, measured ozone holes, etc. India and Singapore paid even lesser attention to anything happening above both Polar Circles.

Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. Was it a rapid melting of Arctic ice, or high oil prices that urged business to turn to the North with its huge hydrocarbon deposits – nobody can say for sure. Rather, it was a combination of economic and natural factors plus common excitation heated by politicians and media. Anyway, Asians were among the leaders in this ‘Great Arctic Race’. In 2013 all five above mentioned nations have become permanent observers at the Arctic Council, which in turn has transformed from low-profile organization to an impressive discussion and decision – making platform.

However, the story goes in a spiral. The window of opportunity in the Arctic has started closing since 2015, together with dropping oil prices and Arctic ice which has refused to melt further. Russian polar navigators who participated in creation of the northernmost transport artery, a miraculous Northern Sea Route (NSR) and successfully exploited it for 40+ years repeatedly told us that ice coverage in the Northern Polar ocean rises to maximum and drops 50 – 70% in 12-year cycles. Greenhouse gases emission and other technogenic activities influence this cyclic process but cannot reverse it.

The case of dropping oil prices is not so obvious due to a massive array of political considerations and controversies accompanying it. As for the Arctic, the long-term effect is positive. Extensive seabed drilling in the Polar Ocean would inevitably threaten its fragile natural environment. Current level of technology does not guarantee the risk free oil & gas extraction or mitigation of consequences if any oil spill accidents occur there. The cost of seabed drilling in the North is too high making it unprofitable at least until oil price will rise to US$ 80 per barrel again. Therefore, the humankind is giving the Arctic a chance to avoid risks and preserve its natural environment intact for the benefit of future generations.

What should Asia – Pacific economies do to continue their active involvement in Arctic affairs? Bets have been made, strategies approved and ambitious roadmaps publicly announced. Judging from successful stories of dynamic economic growth demonstrated by all “Arctic Asian Five”, they will not forget about the Extreme North till better times. Possibly, slow down the operational tempo of Arctic enterprises and cautiously watch others’ activities in the region.

Basically, there are three main fields of activities in the Arctic which are rational for consideration and implementation– scientific research, import of energy resources and maritime transportation of export goods. The first pair is available now while the last option is under examination in Asian capitals as well as in Arctic states, and its destiny is unclear.

Scientific research is seemingly the obvious, logical and publicly approved choice. True, the Arctic is still hiding a lot of mysteries challenging both fundamental science and applied research institutions. Almost everybody heard about ‘El Ninjo’ natural phenomena producing atmospheric turbulences and influencing global climate changes. To the opposite, only a small bunch of specialists know that Arctic coast in Russian Siberia is the biggest natural ozone generator in the Northern hemisphere and its planetary impact is maybe stronger than the effects caused by ‘El Ninjo’. This is only one example of the importance of scientific exploration in the Arctic, and the list of research missions there is very long.

However, two issues are seriously complicating the pace of research activities in the North. First is money, which is no surprise. Global economy has not recovered from the aftereffects of the last economic crisis. The oilers that earlier generously donated scientific research in the Arctic became reluctant now because of diminishing commercial prospects. Accordingly, ‘collateral’ scientific research suffered from this pragmatic policy.

The alertness of Arctic states towards the ‘outsiders’ research activities in the areas which are considered critically important for national security is another breaking factor. Due to regional geography oceanographic research ships are the best tool for conducting comprehensive research activities in the Northern Ocean. It is no secret that modern oceanographic research technology is dual-purpose, with respected Navies acquiring invaluable information for submarine operations from the most peaceful scientific expeditions.The possibility of foreign submarines equipped with ballistic missiles freely entering sovereign water areas in the Polar Ocean becomes a nightmare for security planners in Arctic states.

Arctic natural resources extraction and delivery remains a steady and well-organized industry which is mutually supported by exporters and NE Asian business corporations. The terms of the already signed contracts provide a stable flow of energy resources to Japan, Korea and China and create opportunities for Asian economies to get its share of the process. Building the high ice-class LPG carriers for Russian shipping companies in Korean shipyards represents a good example of mutually beneficial two-sided business project. The absence of realistic prospects for growth dictated by low oil prices is the only serious shortcoming in this sphere today. And it is serious enough to block new investments until the situation in global markets has changed.

Finally, maritime transit via NSR as this option is highly controversial with a number of Pro et Contra factors. The distance between NE Asia and Northern Europe is 40% shorter if you use the NSR comparing to the traditional Indian Ocean – Suez Channel travel. The resulting economy in ship fuel costs and delivery time is significant. At the same time, it is more difficult to keep on schedule on the polar routes due to unpredictably changing ice cover. To overcome this obstacle icebreaker support is deemed necessary which is costly and slows down ship transit speed. So on, so fourth…

Summing up, shorter distance is the objective priority. All other problems can be resolved basing on technology development and sophisticated logistics planning. China looks most consistent in this respect, officially incorporating Arctic transit route into its “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Chinese approach is pragmatic and comprehensive: engagement in creation of maritime transit system in the Arctic will give Chinese exporters substantial advantages and solve many domestic economic and social problems. South Korea is likely to firmly continue Arctic engagement policy as part of “Eurasian Initiative”, but is preoccupied with internal political crisis right now. The intentions of Japan are unclear so far.

Another key player’s position is persistent, too – Russia welcomes all interested economies to cooperate in establishing a reliable and effective ship transit system basing on NSR. With one precondition – to act within the law and to coordinate all activities in Russian Arctic waters with Russian authorities.

DISCLAIMER:The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.

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Ivan Kessler is German research scholar at University of Vienna, Austria. His research focus is the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. He is also co-author of several scientific articles on maritime territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. Also cooperate with the Far Eastern Federal University (Russia) for scientific exchange.