Northern exposure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am

A person in space looking down on the frigid region around the North Pole would view something never seen before at this time of year. Last Friday, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent on record, according to scientists who have measured the retreat since satellite images became available in the 1970s. They predict that the melting will continue under the impact of global warming to the point where there may be no summer sea ice in the Arctic by 2030, and much less ice in winter.

What could this opening of access to what have long been the frozen wastes around the North Pole mean for Asia, much of which lies in the northern hemisphere? It could radically alter energy import patterns, particularly for countries like China, Japan and South Korea, which increasingly depend on oil and gas from far-away, politically volatile regions like the Middle East and Africa.

It could trigger a rush of extended undersea territorial claims - and disputes - in Asian waters which, like the Arctic, are considered to have significant potential reserves of oil, gas and other minerals. And it could open a new international shipping route through an ice-free Arctic Ocean between northeastern Asia and northern Europe; it would be considerably quicker than the main routes now taken across the Pacific through the Panama Canal, or via Southeast Asian straits and the Suez Canal.

The skirmishing for control of seabed resources in the Arctic is quickly gathering pace. A Russian team this month descended in a mini-submarine beneath the North Pole and reportedly planted a marker on the sea floor in a symbolic assertion of sovereignty. Canada and the United States, whose leaders met this week, are also asserting their positions. Fear of being left on the sidelines may even induce the US to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The other two Arctic seabed claimants, Denmark and Norway, are sending scientists to the area to substantiate their claims. Lars Kullerud, a UN consultant, says the carve-up of the continental shelf will probably be the last big expansion of territory in world history. 'Many countries don't realise how serious it is,' he adds.

By some accounts, the Arctic contains 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. Much of it would be offshore, beneath the seabed. Although systematic surveys of the area's energy potential are just beginning, most experts see the Arctic as a highly promising zone, particularly for natural gas. High oil prices, improvements in deep-sea drilling technology and concerns about depleting reserves elsewhere are driving the race to control, find and exploit oil and gas under the Arctic.

Unclos was established to regulate human use of the seas. Under the treaty, governments can claim an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles (370km) from their coast - or further, if they can prove that the area in question is an extension of their own continental shelf of shallower waters.

This process of extending continental shelf claims is coming into increasingly sharp focus and will inevitably affect Asia. Russia and Norway have already submitted Arctic claims for adjudication by the UN agency that decides the merits of each case, although it lacks enforcement power. In the Asia-Pacific region, submissions have also been filed by Australia and New Zealand. The UN agency has called for all claims to be lodged by May 2009. A country must do so within 10 years of ratifying Unclos.

Some of the most contentious submissions are likely to involve China and Japan in the East China Sea, and China and Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea which, like the Arctic, is a semi-enclosed body of water. Less contentious, for Asia at least, would be the opening of the Northwest Passage, skirting Canada's far north, to year-round shipping between the manufacturing dynamos of northeastern Asia and the consumer markets of Europe and North America. Canada claims sovereignty over the passage, and this month established a military base at its eastern entrance. The US says the waters are international and must remain open to ships of all nations.

China and other major Asian maritime trading powers would probably prefer the US position. A container cargo ship travelling at 21 knots between Yokohama, Japan, and the Dutch port of Rotterdam takes 29 days if it goes around the Cape of Good Hope. It takes 22 days via the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and on to Europe through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. But the same ship would take just 15 days via the Arctic Ocean. In the long-distance movement of sea cargo, time saved is money made.

An alternative Arctic route by sea from Asia to Europe would help reduce growing congestion in the relatively narrow and shallow Malacca and Singapore straits, where the number of international ship transits each year is projected to more than double by 2020, from around 70,000 today. While this might somewhat reduce the strategic importance of the straits, it would probably make them safer by lowering the risk of accidents.

In both trade and strategic terms, China would be the big winner from having a reliable shipping passage through the Arctic. Some 60 per cent of international trading vessels passing Singapore at present are reported to be either Chinese or carrying cargo for China.

Beijing fears that in a crisis, say over Taiwan, the US might be tempted to try to close the Southeast Asian trade and energy artery to China-bound shipping. Having the Arctic route would make Beijing less vulnerable to blockade pressure.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.