When the Arctic Council admitted a bevy of new official observer states to its ranks to great fanfare in May 2013,China and India’s accession dominated the headlines. But three other key Asian nations – Japan, Singapore and South Korea – also joined this intergovernmental forum for coordinating among Arctic nations and are no less poised to play a part in the future of Arctic development. Like their larger Asian neighbors, Japan, Singapore and South Korea aim to participate in energy resource development and climate change research in the polar north. Yet the primary interest driving the Arctic engagement of all three countries is the increasing accessibility of northern waters to commercial shipping.
The progressive opening of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) above Eurasia’s northern rim carries wide-reaching implications. Shipping via the NSR has the potential to drastically reduce sailing distances, costs, and times between northern Europe and East Asia. Under current conditions, shipping between major Japanese and South Korean ports such as Tokyo and Busan and northern Europe ports such as Rotterdam and Hamburg must pass through a series of heavily trafficked chokepoints, including the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca. The sea lanes connecting the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, meanwhile, pass between a strife-riven Somalia and an unstable Yemen, meaning international shipping interests may potentially face security risks in the Gulf of Aden well into the future. With scientific projections forecasting a warmer Arctic over the course of the 21st century, passages now choked by sea ice poses may become progressively more practicable, making European-Asian shipping by way of the Arctic Ocean increasingly viable.
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