Linking Singapore, Asia, and the Arctic

Singapore’s iconic skyline seems far removed from the Arctic (Photo: Gregory Sharp)
Singaporean experts help us unpack some common questions about the role of Singapore and other Asian states in the Arctic.

Singaporean experts help us unpack some common questions about the role of Singapore and other Asian states in the Arctic

A small city state nestled just shy of the equator, Singapore is not the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of the Arctic. Yet this ambitious city state, along with several East Asian neighbours, have steadily increased their diplomatic, scientific, and economic presence across the region. This has led many living in the Arctic to question both the intentions and implications of the involvement of these Asian states — in particular China.

What parallels can be drawn between Singapore, Asia, and the Arctic? Why have some expressed anxiety at an increased Asian presence in the Arctic? And where are the opportunities for Singapore and Asian states to engage productively in the Arctic? To discuss these questions, High North News spoke with several Singaporean experts to get their take on how to understand what’s going on.

Drawing parallels between the Arctic and Asia

The intense heat, monsoon rain, and abundant vegetation of South East Asia doesn’t necessarily lend itself to easy comparison with the Arctic. Quick to caveat this, Hema Nadarajah, a Singaporean doctoral student at the University of British Columbia in Canada, highlights that appearances can be deceiving. In a recent presentation organized by the Canadian High Commission in Singapore, she began with a mosaic of pictures featuring pristine, clear water. The catch was that half of them were from around Singapore, and the other half were from Northern Norway — the audience was, to put it generously, not entirely successful in differentiating the two.

In addition to a clever introduction to a presentation, Nadarajah is quick to point out that the two regions share common concerns surrounding preserving their natural beauty through conservation. In the case of Singapore there is another link to the Arctic, as the city-state is an important stop for Arctic breeding migratory bird populations. In early 2017, for example, the Arctic Council Working Group on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna hosted a large workshop in Singapore that tackled the protection of natural habitats and how to curb unsustainable hunting.

Sharing climate change challenges

This is, in turn, tied to larger questions of climate change. The Arctic is particularly vulnerable to the effects of melting sea ice and melting permafrost. Already communities in Alaska are facing the prospect of relocation and becoming some of the first
climate refugees in the United States. The melting of sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet also pose an existential threat to Singapore, a low-lying island state, and large parts of Asia that could be underwater as early as 2050. Nadarajah highlights that, beyond conservation, there is a strong common interest in combating and mitigating the effects of climate change.   

The governments of both regions also face challenges in finding a balance between environmental sustainability, socio-economic development, and community interests. Dr. Christopher Len, a Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore, highlights three key ways to understand this comparison.

"First, the two regions have under-developed areas and communities that require greater support in order for them to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. On this front, both regions have to rely on Public-Private Partnership arrangements."

Long-term implications for indigenous people and rural areas

The second point he mentions is the importance of insuring the adaptability and survival of communities, in particular Indigenous communities and those in remote and rural areas. Dr. Len underscores that Indigenous communities in both regions "face challenges in maintaining their rights, identity and their traditional way of life as a result of the pressures of modernisation as well as the effects of climate change."

Large pushes for development often accompany the discovery of significant resource wealth, something that in turn complicates the question of tackling climate change. While this is an immediate problem, the third point Dr. Len makes is that there are also long-term implications. In particular, "there is growing recognition of the importance of human capital development and value-creation at the local level to stem brain drain from under-developed rural communities."

These factors are echoed in a 2016 report by the Energy Studies Institute investigating the potential for international collaboration between Alaska and South East Asia on remote hybrid energy systems. The authors, Dr. George Roe and Dr. Len, find that for these sustainable energy projects to work — in both Asia and the Arctic — you need financial investments, a social license to operate, and a pool of competent individuals at the community-level to operate and maintain these energy systems.

Questioning and contextualizing these parallels  

Turning the initial question on its head, Dr. Woon Chih Yuan, an Assistant Professor in Geography at the National University of Singapore, instead reflects on who the actors are making these comparisons between Asia and the Arctic. Dr. Chih Yuan argues that "many of the Asian states themselves are constructing these discourses to demonstrate/underscore their potential contributions to the Arctic region, thereby justifying their presence and initiatives in the Circumpolar North."

He is quick to caution, however, that these constructed discourses cannot be analysed in isolation but instead need to be understood within the larger context of those who are interpreting and acting upon these discourses. He cautions that, while the drawing of parallels has been used to facilitate cooperation and exchanges between Asian actors and their Arctic counterparts, they need to be understood in tandem with the reaction of Arctic actors to these narratives.

Unease over Asia in the Arctic

Reactions to Asian interests in the Arctic (in particular Chinese) have ranged dramatically. Some welcome the capital and expertise that they bring to the table, whereas others fear a nightmarish "scramble for the poles." Dr. Chih Yuan argues that sensationalist responses can be largely chalked up to realist notions of a "rising Asia."

Expanding on this, he explains that "those who subscribe to this perspective commonly assert that Asian interests and investments in the Arctic region, particularly from China, indicate a future in which some level of competition over resource extraction and military presence will ensue (especially as China becomes more influential with its economic and military power). This is despite China and other Asian states constantly maintaining that they genuinely want to forge mutually beneficial partnerships within the region."

He further points to "Polar Orientalism," a concept elaborated by Dr. Klaus Dodds and Dr. Mark Nuttall in The Scramble for the Poles: The Geopolitics of the Arctic and Antarctic, as a useful way of understanding this phenomenon. The authors liken polar Orientalism to a form of moral panic: "a way of representing, imagining, seeing, exaggerating, distorting and fearing ‘the East’ and its involvement in Arctic affairs." In this way, investments, scholarships, or trade with Asian countries is treated by Arctic countries as somehow different, more threatening, than that of other states.

'Polar orientalism' and the Arctic Council

An interesting case is that of the Chinese application to the Arctic Council. Many pundits and journalists framed it as gaining access to a key geostrategic location from which they could expand their interests. By contrast, the applications of Italy, or the European Union, garnered limited attention and were not cast in such a menacing light.   

Dr. Dodds and Dr. Nuttall argue that this polar Orientalism ignores and obscures two important facts. The first is that considerable parts of the Arctic belong to the Eurasian landmass and have distinctive north Asian qualities to it (yet seldom do we talk about the North Asian Arctic as opposed to the North American Arctic). The second point is that trade relations between Asian and Arctic communities are by no means a new phenomenon and instead can be traced back several centuries.

Adding to this, Dr. Chih Yuan notes that some Asian commentators have argued that "it is actually the Arctic states that are overheating debates in Arctic politics because they cannot come up with a shared list of rules for the non-Arctic states and they are not in full agreement about how the code of conduct should develop in the region."

And, as Nadarajah points out, it is worth differentiating between the various Asian states active in the Arctic. China (and to a lesser extent South Korea and Japan) have borne the brunt of the negative attention. She credits Singapore’s relatively positive reputation to "its perception as non-threatening, its constructive efforts in the Arctic Council working groups, and its savvy diplomacy at forums such as the Arctic Circle conference."


Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay are home to solar powered “supertrees” (Photo credit: Gregory Sharp)
Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay are home to solar powered “supertrees” (Photo credit: Gregory Sharp)

A constructive role for Singapore in the Arctic

While Singapore may not enjoy the economic or political clout of some of the other Asian states active in the Arctic, it nevertheless appears well positioned to play a constructive role in the region. Echoing earlier thoughts, questions of environmentalism and climate change are front and centre. Nadarajah highlights how, "as the only tropical and small island observer state in the Arctic Council, Singapore is well positioned to speak to the effects of melting sea ice on small island states [and] could be a bridge for communicating climate adaptation solutions."

The role of Singapore as a facilitator of knowledge exchanges is echoed by Dr. Len who argues that it could play a larger role in Arctic governance by contributing to research collaboration between Arctic and Singaporean universities, as well as knowledge exchanges between relevant government agencies. Importantly, he notes that Singapore’s development experience could prove a useful example for others to learn from:

"When we became independent in 1965, we were a small and under-developed nation with no natural resource endowments. There were many who questioned our ability to survive as an independent nation-state. However, through our political leaders’ emphasis on education and training, and the cultivation of an effective civil service, we managed not only to survive but to prosper. While Singapore’s developmental experience is rather unique, we can nevertheless share our story with those who are interested in learning about our developmental experience. They can then draw their own lessons and adapt it to their own local context."

Dr. Len emphasizes that this is not simply Singapore sharing its experiences with the Arctic, but instead a two-way exchange as the "government is also keen to promote awareness on Arctic issues in Singapore and Southeast Asia." In the same vein, Dr. Chih Yuan notes that some countries, in particular South Korea and Singapore, have been careful to respect the rights of local populations—in particular Indigenous peoples through cooperation with the permanent participants of the Arctic Council.

Economic potential for both sides

A common thread running through all this is the potential for economic cooperation, be it with the export of sustainable technology to the Arctic or by allowing Arctic companies to reach markets outside of the region. Indeed, Dr. Chih Yuan speaks to how, along with the shared threat of climate change, economic linkages are commonly seen as a productive realm of cooperation between Arctic and Asian states—indeed it appears to be one of a few areas where there is a broad consensus among researchers.

And, in this respect, Singapore has a lot to offer. "Singapore, being a maritime nation has a wealth of experience in handling issues such as maritime logistics, trade, etc. These experiences can be purposefully harnessed to provide enabling and sustainable technologies for the Arctic region as corporations and states continue to explore and chart out new sea transportation routes."