Iced out: China, Japan, and S. Korea hold dialogue on the Arctic

A sign at the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic Ocean: open to all? Photo: Mia Bennett 2017.

A little over four years ago, as several Asian countries were vying for observer status in the Arctic Council, there was some concern over what might happen if they were not admitted. Shut out from the region’s preeminent intergovernmental body, would China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India discuss their interests in the Arctic elsewhere, in a forum like the United Nations or the International Maritime Organization? Might they even talk about the Arctic at a conference like the Arctic Circle, which, though based in Iceland, strongly promotes a global envisioning of the Arctic?

These fears were cast aside when the five Asian countries and Italy gained observer status at the Kiruna Arctic Council Ministerial in 2013. However, certain observers like China have been less than thrilled with arrangements in the Arctic Council. Observers, after all, are meant to more or less just watch proceedings. They do not speak unless asked, and though they are expected to contribute to the activities of the Arctic Council, they can never really spearhead initiatives. Observers’ financial contributions for any one project can never total more than 50% of all funding.

Partly in reaction to the strictures of the Arctic Council and partly a reflection of growing synergies between the East Asian countries, last week, Tokyo hosted the Second Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic. The meeting involved Japan’s Arctic Ambassador, Ms. Kazuko Shiraishi, China’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, Mr. Gao Feng, and South Korea’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr. Kim Young-jun.

The trilateral dialogue, which follows on the prior one held in Seoul last year, emerged out of the Joint Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia (PDF) issued in November 2015. The declaration gave renewed impetus to regional trust-building and trilateral cooperation following a three-and-a-half year hiatus caused by various political disagreements between the three countries. It lists many points of possible cooperation including nuclear safety, North Korea, the green economy, and, buried somewhere in the middle, the Arctic. Point 34 reads: “Acknowledging the global importance of Arctic issues, we will launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic.”

Fast forward to June 8, 2017, when Tokyo successfully hosted the second trilateral dialogue on the Arctic. At the meeting, the three officials and other research associates from Asian institutions working on the Arctic gave presentations on each country’s policy in the Arctic, related challenges, and the potential for cooperation between Japan, China, and South Korea in the region. 
The three Northeast Asian countries also agreed to conduct a joint study to assess pollution and climate impacts in the Arctic, largely in the oceans rather than on land. This study, along with the perspectives contained within the joint statement released following the dialogue, reflects distinct efforts on behalf of the there Asian countries to frame the Arctic at a global scale and as a maritime region. Both efforts help to legitimize Asian involvement in the Arctic by undermining the importance of land, sovereign territory, and national and regional boundaries. The opening paragraph of the joint statement reads,

“Climate change is affecting the vulnerable Arctic ecosystems, the livelihoods of local inhabitants and indigenous communities on a global scale, while the melting of ice brings new opportunities such as natural resources and marine fisheries in the Arctic as well as the opening of sea routes.”

Here, Japan, China, and South Korea are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. The three countries pay lip service to the vulnerabilities of local and indigenous peoples in the Arctic while also claiming that these vulnerabilities exist “on a global scale.”

Additionally, two of the three opportunities that the dialogue mentions are maritime-based: marine fisheries and shipping routes. All three Northeast Asian countries have sizable deep-water fishing fleets, a reason that law professor Erik Molenaar claims is why they, along with Iceland and the European Union, were invited by the five Arctic coastal states to participate in the December 2015 Washington Meeting on High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Japan, China, and South Korea don’t just claim to seek resources. The next sentence in the joint statement argues,

“In particular, it is indispensable for the international community to ensure the protection and preservation of the fragile marine environment of the Arctic Ocean, and maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation based on a rule-based maritime order.”

The three countries clearly see the marine environment as a legitimate space for them to exert influence in line with a “rule-based maritime order,” generally taken to be the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Cleverly, the three countries parrot language from the controversial Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, which was an attempt by the five Arctic coastal states to solidify their control and authority over matters of Arctic governance. In that declaration, the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark proclaimed, “This framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management by the five  coastal States and other users of this Ocean through national implementation and application of relevant provisions.” Whereas the Arctic Five emphasize the national oversight allowed by UNCLOS, however, the Asian countries underscore the rights and responsibilities of the international community in the world’s oceans provided by the same treaty.

China, Japan, and South Korea also announced that they would report discussions held during the dialogue to the Arctic Council, again trying to place nice with the right people. The Asian countries have come a long way from the days when Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of China’s People’s Liberation Army declared in 2010, “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” While the idea of the Central Arctic Ocean as a global commons still motivates a great deal of Asian involvement in the region, the language the Asian countries use to justify their presence is now more careful and measured so that their participation is not perceived as undue interference.

Sometime next year, China will host the third Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic. In a way, then, perhaps the Arctic Council’s worries from a few years back that the Asian countries would sidestep the body are slowly coming true. Even though China, Japan, and South Korea are reporting their discussions to the Arctic Council, important discussions about the Arctic are taking place in a venue outside of the control of sovereign Arctic states – and without any of their participation or even mere observation.

If the trilateral dialogue ever expands to include other non-sovereign actors – for instance, if South Korea, which is continuing to enhance its cooperation with indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Arctic, decided to invite the Aleut International Association to next year’s meeting – this likely wouldn’t go down very well with the Arctic Council. Then, the body may have to seriously reconsider the role of observers lest other restless ones like the United Kingdom, Spain, and newly admitted Switzerland start forming their own separate dialogues on a region that it seems more and more countries on Earth see as part of their own watery backyard.

China sent seven workers to Greenland to process fish. Now what?

Maniitsoq, Greenland in March

Maniitsoq, Greenland in March. Photo: Destination Arctic Circle / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 License

Much of the Arctic has been rightly freaking out about Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. The top story in Iceland’s main newspaper, Morgunblaðið, declares, “Trump’s decision is a ‘big threat to Iceland.'” Canada’s Globe and Mail sees Trump’s move as “raising challenges for Canada.” Russia’s main newspapers, in contrast, don’t seem terribly concerned.

While the Arctic countries are wringing their hands over the climate bomb released in the Rose Garden today, nobody has said much about the first seven Chinese employees who arrived to work in a fish processing plant in the town of Maniitsoq, Greenland today.

The new arrivals from Asia will work for Royal Greenland, which is completely owned by the Greenlandic government. The company traces its roots back to 1774, when Denmark formally established trade with the world’s largest island. Today, Royal Greenland’s main business is in fishing cold-water prawns, halibut, snow crab, cod and lumpfish off the country’s west coast. Workers in the factory in Maniitsoq turn cod into frozen blocks by chopping off the heads, while others process crab and prawns.

For the past fifteen years, many of these exports have been going to China, where demand for seafood continues to increase. Now, China is sending back workers to help process the very fish that might end up on people’s plates in Beijing. An employee in Royal Greenland’s sales department in China helped find the workers who were interested in relocating to Greenland. Royal Greenland representatives greeted the new workers at the airport today in Maniitsoq and gave them tours of the factory and the town. With about 2,700 residents, the town is Greenland’s sixth largest.

The Chinese employees will work under equal conditions as their Greenlandic counterparts. Royal Greenland even helped rent apartments for them, which the newspaper Sermitsiaq reports they are “satisfied” by. They’ve also started learning a little Greenlandic. Ten additional employees from China will arrive later this month.

Sustainable Arctic communities: accommodating global and local needs

Fish drying in Kagsiarsuk, Greenland.

Fish drying in Kagsiarsuk, Greenland. / JT Stewart, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Royal Greenland’s website claims, “The fishing, processing and seafood trades in Greenland form the basis for sustainable local communities in the country.” But Maniitsoq’s population is hardly sustainable, even with a booming fish processing plant. In fact, the number of residents has been declining steadily for decades, having shrunk by 15% since 1990.

The lack of a substantial labor force is one reason why Royal Greenland has had to look all the way to China for workers. At the same time, Greenland has an unemployment rate that tends to hover around 10%. One commenter on Sermitsiaq’s story on the topic hailing from Denmark asked, “I can’t understand why one has to get workers all the way from China when the unemployment rate is so high in the country.” Another commenter responded, “It’s because people magically get sick after payday,” referencing the supposed unreliability of some Greenlandic workers.

An additional problem that Royal Greenland and fish factories up and down the country’s coast have is ensuring that enough workers show up during the spring and summer, when the days are long. Royal Greenland’s plant manager in Maniitsoq touched upon this issue to Sermitsiaq last June. For people who still engage in subsistence hunting and fishing, summer is a critical season. In many cases, people work until they have enough money to buy a new engine for their boat, ammunition for hunting, or fuel for a whaling trip. Once this financial goal is achieved, working at a factory can be frankly boring and not as worthwhile as going out and bringing home “country food” – tasty and nutritious fish, seals, whales, birds, geese, berries, eggs, and the like – that can feed your family for a good long time. According to a 2007 study by the University of Alaska, in Greenland, 71% of people surveyed had picked berries in the last 12 months, 69% had fished, and 43% had hunted sea mammals. I heard employers bring up this issue during my own fieldwork in northern Canada, too, demonstrating how balancing wage work with subsistence practices is a challenge across the Arctic for both employers and employees.

Last October, Royal Greenland’s CEO Søren Olsen Damgaard remarked:

“We have many stable and good employees at the factories who make a big effort for the company, but we need even more employees. To solve the challenges of labor shortages, we have for many years used labor from the coast partly with success, but unfortunately, the lack of manpower hasn’t been fully resolved – but has grown year after year. As the problem of labor shortage in our land-based factories is a recurring problem, we are forced to recruit foreign labor.”

As the Greenlandic government looks to stimulate economic development via resource extraction, one has to wonder who will work in the mines, smelters, and hydropower plants should they ever be constructed For a while now, American aluminum producer Alcoa has hoped to build a smelter in Greenland to capitalize on the country’s vast hydropower potential. About a decade ago, the Greenlandic government recommended that it be built in Maniitsoq to stimulate regional economic development, but not much has happened since. North American Nickel also has a plan to explore for nickel-copper sulphides, but again, it’s unclear whether it will ever materialize.

What is certain is that the construction and resource extraction industries are heavily dependent on workers turning up every day. Unless Greenland plans to import thousands of workers from overseas (which has been suggested from time to time), more needs to be done to allow wage work and subsistence practices to co-exist. For companies, this sometimes means accepting that a project just won’t get done according to as strict a timeline as it might in a more deeply capitalist society.

In places with mixed economies, governments and employers should be more accommodating so that not just capitalism thrives, but also traditional activities. One way to start might be that in addition to recruiting workers from China, employers should perhaps also support more flexible work schedules for their local employees. Chopping and preparing frozen cod blocks for global export can wait when there’s fresh cod in the waters outside to be fished for local consumption.

(P.S. If anyone can read Greenlandic, I’d love to know what the commenters are saying in response to Sermitsiaq’s story.)

Remembering when the Arctic was a war zone


Members of the Royal Navy clearing ice off the deck of HMS Inglefield during convoy duty in Arctic waters. Copyright: © IWM (A 15403).

The media today seems to get a thrill out of announcing that war is around the corner in the Arctic. But 75 years ago, the icebound region really was wracked by battles and bombings. The deserts of north Africa, the jungles of Southeast Asia, and the cities of Europe are commonly imagined as World War II battlegrounds. But the frozen lands and waters of the Arctic were, too.

Actual battles in the Arctic made headlines every so often, with newspapers telling readers in places like Spokane, Washington and Bend, Oregon of ships lost and men saved in frigid climates. On this Memorial Day, here are five such news stories that capture a time when the Arctic made news not because of climate change or resource bonanzas, but rather because of war. In the 1940s, the Arctic represented not a hope for humanity as the last pristine, untouched place on Earth, as it does today. Instead, it showed just how far humans would go to try to destroy the enemy: literally, to the edge of the world.

March 1940


Kentucky New Era, April 20, 1940

In the 1940s, cod liver oil – “bottled sunshine” – was a common supplement provided by American parents to their children. So naturally, a potential shortage of cod liver, much of it sourced from Norway at the time, could cause a real problem for “Junior,” as the Kentucky New Era worried. Eleven days prior to this newspaper article, the Nazis had invaded Norway and Denmark. A little less than a year later, British commandos taking part in Operation Claymore would raid the Lofoten Islands, the Arctic archipelago in northern Norway that produced some 50% of the country’s fish oil.

The Lofoten Islands were strategic for the Nazis, as they sourced glycerin from fish oil to make explosives. In their surprise raid, the British burned thousands of gallons of fish oil, causing thick, black plumes of smoke to choke the skies. With pristine imaginings of the Lofoten Islands drawing thousands of tourists each year nowadays, it’s hard to imagine such fiery scenes as depicted below unfolding in the recent past. On the other hand, cod is still everywhere on the island – hanging on wooden racks to dry, being sold in the supermarket, and being served up to eat.


Royal Engineers preparing to blow up barrels of fish oil on the quayside at Stamsund, Lofoten Islands, Norway. March 4, 1941. © IWM (N 418)


Burning of fish oil stockpiles on Stamsund, Lofoten Islands, Norway. March 4, 1941. Source: WW2 Today.


Today: Cod racks in Reine, Lofoten Islands. Fog, rather than black smoke, hangs in the air. Photo: Mia Bennett, January 2013.

December 1940


St. Petersburg Times, December 14, 1940

Early on, before the U.S. had even entered the war, American commentators like Damon Runyon of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times were urging the U.S. to purchase Greenland from Denmark. After all, as Runyon argued, “Greenland is of no commercial profit to Denmark. It has long been a considerable deficit. Its value as a possession can at best be only sentimental.” Underscoring his dismissive view towards the world’s largest island, he continued, “A few years back, Greenland was of no importance to any nation, save that it gave our industrious explorers a place to spend their summers.”

A few years after the war, the U.S. offered Denmark $100 million to purchase Greenland. The kingdom refused the offer even though it would have been a massive financial boon, as one blogger has calculated. Why? As noted by the blogger, Danish Prime Minister Hans Hedtoft explained at the time, “Why not sell Greenland? Because it would not be in accordance with our honor and conscience to sell Greenland.” Thus, Runyon was correct in saying that Greenland’s value to Denmark was largely sentimental. But he underestimated the value of that sentimentality to the Danish Kingdom.

Similarly, in his op-ed, Runyon also raised the idea of buying St. Pierre and Miquelon, the two small islands near Canada, from the French. Yet that hasn’t come to fruition, perhaps for reasons of sentimentality as well. Nearly 80 years later, Macron, and not Trump or Trudeau, is the head of state for the 6,000-odd people residing on these two islands off Newfoundland who use the euro rather than the dollar or the loonie.

March 1942


Ellensburg Daily Record (Ellensburg, Washington), March 17, 1942

In the late winter and early spring of 1942, there were fears that the Nazis would attack U.S.-protected Iceland. Since August 1941, Allied convoys had sailed from naval bases in Hvalfjörður and Reykjavik in Iceland to northern Soviet ports, generally Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. Hvalfjörður is pretty quiet today, though it is home to Iceland’s last remaining whaling station (the name itself means “whale-fjord” in Icelandic). I once accidentally close to an hour driving around the whole fjord rather after missing the shortcut (an underwater tunnel opened in 1998 that takes about 7 minutes to drive through.) Arkhangelsk, too, is now a pleasant coastal city in the Russian Arctic where people play beach volleyball during the long summer days.


It’s pretty quiet at Hvalfjord, Iceland nowadays. Photo: Mia Bennett, October 2013.


Playing beach volleyball on a summer’s day in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Photo: Mia Bennett, August 2015.

May 1942


The Bulletin (Bend, Oregon), May 4, 1942

In spring of 1942, Tirpitz’s supposed raid on Iceland still hadn’t materialized. The Western Allies continued sending ships from posts in the North Atlantic to help send vital supplies to the Soviet Union. In April, Allied Convoy PQ 15 set forth from Reykjavik, bound for Murmansk. Nazi raids sunk three of the 25 ships in the convoy, but the others managed to safely reach their destination. It was difficult to travel covertly in the Arctic in summer due not to ice, but rather to the persistent daylight that made it impossible to hide under the cover of night.

Map of routes taken by Allied Arctic convoys.

Map of routes taken by Allied Arctic convoys. Source:

September 1943


The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington), Sept. 10, 1943

During World War II, the Germans bombed Allied positions on the island of Spitsbergen, within the Svalbard archipelago, with the aim of destroying “military establishments, coal mines and ports”. While unknown at the time by The Spokesman-Review, German battleships Tirpitz – the very one that was once feared to be on its way to striking Iceland – and Scharnhorst carried out the attacks.

Today, Svalbard is now a place for global science and polar bear sight-seeing. It’s even home to the Global Seed Vault – the last repository for the world’s seeds – partly by virtue of it now being deemed one of the safest, most secure places on Earth. Nazis may no longer threaten Svalbard, but earlier this month, the entrance to the Global Seed Vault unexpectedly flooded after a spate of warm temperatures. The biggest threat to Svalbard now may be one for which anyone who has ever emitted greenhouse gases bears some partial responsibility: climate change.


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv. (Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY-ND 2.0)