Looking from Japan, it is never straightforward to understand the issue of Arctic security. To begin with, it appears that the definition of the Arctic region is not unanimously agreed. The most common definition is that the Arctic is the region above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line around 60°N latitude. Other definitions, which are mostly based on natural sciences, describe the Arctic as the area north of the arctic tree line, or are based on temperature. In politics, however, the Arctic has been consistently contested, depending on the context and constellation of ‘who’ is talking about the region. For example, Iceland is one of the eight Arctic states of the Arctic Council, which is the most influential intergovernmental forum on the area, even though its coastline is below the Arctic Circle.
Therefore when discussing the Arctic and its security from the outside, it appears crucial that we pay attention to political actors and how they define this region, to what they view as ‘security problems’, and to what they attempt to project when defining the region and its security. To explain Arctic international relations and its history of mostly peaceful cooperation, Elana Wilson Rowe listed actor groups in the Arctic region from a historical perspective – namely, indigenous peoples and their organizations, commercial actors, states and their representatives, scientists, and NGOs and their representatives. Note that those actor groups began with the actual people living in the Arctic, not states. This element – that Arctic cooperation and contestation have to be viewed from the perspective of the people actually living and working in the region – is something that makes the Arctic distinct from Antarctica, as well as from other ‘frontiers’ discussed in this conference on ‘Security at the Frontier’, such as cyberspace, outer space and electronic warfare.
Since the first explorers reached the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century, the Arctic has remained a peripheral region especially for people who live outside it. Partly because it is covered by thick ice, the Arctic has often been described (or imagined) as a pristine, white northern hinterland disconnected from any human activities or civilization. During the Second World War, the strategic value of the region rapidly increased as a result of critical naval convoys and the importance of outposts for weather prediction. At the dawn of the Cold War, the Arctic became an even more strategically crucial region, both beneath and above the Arctic Ocean. As the Cold War ended, views on the Arctic shifted to more comprehensive security issues, such as the effects of global warming and climate change. Due to climate change, the Arctic has become ice-free for longer periods and over a greater area with each passing year.
Seemingly negative changes to the Arctic have revealed the new possibilities in the region, such as oil drilling, natural gas and precious metals that used to be covered in ice, or for developing shipping routes such as the Northern Sea Route and the Northeast Passage.
Simultaneously, these seemingly negative changes to the Arctic have revealed new possibilities in the region, such as oil drilling, natural gas and precious metals that used to be covered in ice, or for developing shipping routes such as the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the Northeast Passage. The Arctic and its complex governance system, based on the Arctic Council and non-legally binding soft laws in the post-Cold War period, have been contested. Nonetheless, working relationships between various Arctic actor groups have been largely cooperative. The most recent developments of contestation, however, are the (perceived) rise of the great power competition between the US, Russia and China in the Arctic. Prompted by this perceived competition, the US increased its engagement in Greenland, for example, by reopening its consulate there after 67 years. With these recent developments in mind, as well as ‘who’ is talking about the Arctic and its security, what are the UK and Japan’s ambitions in the region, and what opportunities are there for strengthening and developing the rules-based order in the Arctic?
Finding a role in Arctic affairs
In answering this question, a unique feature of the Arctic that must be considered is that it is physically surrounded by European and North American coastal states, each with competing governance claims. Those states have been at the centre of global economic and political gravity for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Given this, it is worth noting that Japan has been one of only a few non-Western, geographically distant states to engage in the polar regions since 1911. In fact, there are only 16 states in the world that place priority on both the Arctic and the Antarctic, based on their status as both signatories of the Antarctic Treaty and members/observers of the Arctic Council. The UK and Japan are two of those 16 states. In this regard, the UK and Japan’s ambitions in the region should always be interpreted as an attempt to show ‘legitimate great power’ status through membership of international institutions. Arguably, the symbolic importance of the Arctic for the UK and Japan allows both countries to be flexible in their engagement but at the same time non-committal regarding the interests of the people who actually live and work in the region.
Those who govern the Arctic have not been entirely welcoming to non-coastal states like the UK or Japan. For instance, there have always been calls for the creation of a new international regime for the Arctic, such as a legally binding Arctic Treaty. In 2008, however, in the Illulissat Declaration, the Arctic coastal states formally rejected any need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean. They acknowledged that the existing legal framework created around the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is sufficient and the Arctic legal order should remain more flexible than rigid, based on soft law instruments and non-binding cooperative frameworks. This limits the participation of the UK and Japan or other non-Arctic actors in the decision-making process, since they are – legally speaking – ‘outsiders’. It can, however, allow the UK and Japan to play a role in developing norms in or about the Arctic. For example, by lobbying an Arctic state or a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council, both the UK and Japan are able to propose projects that advance or reinforce their views on specific issues. This role is not insignificant, but different from the role that the UK and Japan expect of themselves as ‘legitimate great powers’ in other settings.
Within those confines, the UK and Japan have crafted their own official Arctic policies and acted upon them. In the UK’s 2018 Arctic policy – the country’s second Arctic policy paper – the UK government proposed that the vision of ‘Global Britain’ would be materialized in the Arctic to advance Arctic prosperity and security. Another dimension is the Scottish Arctic policy: Scotland published its own Arctic policy, Arctic Connections, in 2019. Japan adopted its first official Arctic policy in 2015. It lists research and development, international cooperation and sustainable use (of natural resources) as specific initiatives. For the fiscal year 2020, the Japanese government allocated ¥1.3 billion (approximately $13 million) to matters related to the Arctic. Much of it was spent on research and development, including the launch of the ArCS II (the Arctic Challenge for Sustainability II) Project (¥953 million, or $9.2 million), which most Arctic-focused researchers based in Japan participate in. To advance international cooperation, Japan signed the ‘Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean’ (CAO Fishing Agreement) in 2018. On sustainable use, Mitsui, one of Japan’s largest general trading companies, took a 10 per cent stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. This was supported by JOGMEC, a Japanese semi-governmental organization. The ice-breaking LNG vessel ‘Vladimir Rusanov’ operated by the Mitsui O.S.K. Lines arrived in the Tokyo Bay LNG Terminal in the summer of 2020, after departing from Russia’s Yamal LNG station. It was the first time an ice-breaking LNG tanker had arrived in Japan. At the time of writing, there is also talk of the ‘Arctic Connect’ project, which is a submarine communication cable project led by Finland to connect Europe and Asia. The cable is supposed to run along the NSR. Keen to become a port of discharge is Hokkaido, Japan’s most northern prefecture, where they claim that their cool climate is suitable for data centres; they already have broad experience of hosting data centres there.
Developing rules for the Arctic
The CAO Fishing Agreement is an interesting example of new rules being developed or due to be developed with regard to the Arctic. It was signed by the Arctic states (Canada, Iceland, the US, Norway, Denmark (Greenland and the Faroe Islands) and Russia) and by non-coastal states and bodies (Japan, China, South Korea and the European Union). The inclusion of non-coastal states like Japan was legitimized as the US created a new categorization, ‘major fishing nations’. This is a clear example of the fact, as critiqued in the conference’s session, that the term ‘the rules-based international order’ is not a neutral term. When we talk about ‘rules-based’, it precisely depends on ‘who’ is talking about the rules and ‘who’ the listener is. With the CAO Fishing Agreement, the aforementioned limitations of being a non-Arctic state were no longer relevant for the UK (formerly as an EU member state) and Japan. What mattered was whether they were invited to the table to develop the rules.
One area where the UK and Japan can collaborate is on human rights. The Arctic Council places importance on human rights, especially those of indigenous peoples. The UK and Japan have claimed to be leaders in respecting the rights of indigenous peoples as well. The Scottish Arctic policy devotes an entire page to promoting and protecting indigenous languages, especially noting experiences from the promotion of Scottish and Gaelic languages. Within Japan’s nationwide Arctic research programme, there are already a number of scientist-led projects to promote the culture of the Arctic indigenous peoples. For Japanese scientists, however, the importance of indigenous peoples and their rights in the Arctic appears to be something learned gradually as Japan has increased its engagement in the region. It is hoped that Japan’s experience in the Arctic will have a positive effect on how the country regards its own indigenous people, the Ainu, and their rights.
It is notable that questions from the conference audience centred around China, even though the session was supposed to be about the Arctic, the UK and Japan. In recent years, the presence of China in the region has increased greatly. There is also speculation that China uses scientific research as a cover to carry out surveillance and intelligence operations. While we should be cautious of making a judgment in haste given that China has – thus far – respected maritime international law in the Arctic, it could be argued that there is a greater need to understand China’s unique logic of securitization and external relations. Much like ideas of ‘soft power’, China defines its ability to shape international discourse as ‘institutional discourse power’. For example, it has sought to shape discourse around the Arctic and around China’s interpretation of international law. It could also be argued that China is gradually becoming an ‘interpretive power’, as pointed out in the session, in the sense that it is increasingly confident about expressing its views about interpretations of certain provisions of treaties and conventions in ways that suit China’s interests.
While it is naturally attractive to look at Arctic security from the perspective of wider geopolitics, a practical vision for Arctic security is one that prioritizes the machinery of collaboration. For instance, for Japan and its scientists, the fact that the majority of all scientific collaboration with Russia has come to a halt since the 2014 Crimean crisis is more relevant than China’s ambition in the Arctic. Russia plans to increase traffic via the NSR by 90 million tonnes by 2030. However, it has been extremely difficult for Japanese scientists and ship operators to obtain basic data on navigation, such as marine observational data or data on accidents and contamination. This is due to a combination of obstruction and ineptitude on the part of the Russian administrative bodies that take such a long time to process paperwork submitted by Japanese scientists. Barriers also exist in working with the US. Under President Donald Trump, the US failed to maintain solidarity with other Arctic states and the international community by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. The 2019 Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting ended in disagreement when the US blocked adoption of a declaration. It has subsequently proven very difficult for Japan and its scientific community to initiate any collaborative projects on the Arctic with the US. These are examples of small but significant stumbling blocks for scientific cooperation.
The US return to the Paris Agreement could offer the UK and Japan an opportunity to invest diplomatic capital in unblocking scientific initiatives halted in response to the Crimean crisis in 2014. One area for realistic multilateral scientific cooperation with Russia is within the field of humanities and social sciences – for example, a joint project on promoting and protecting indigenous languages. Unexciting as it may sound, such trivial details perhaps capture the reality of Arctic security. Today, the Arctic is no longer a hinterland disconnected from any human activities or civilization – it is entangled in the movement of people, money and technology coming in and out of the region. To make this complex web of interaction work, we need more cooperation rather than contestation – and that cooperation begins with small, tedious steps, rather than talk of a grand geopolitical strategy.