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.


The Donut Hole at the Center of the Arctic Ocean

The Donut Hole (and two other small ones nearby) at the center of the Arctic Ocean.

The Donut Hole (and two other small ones to the south) at the center of the Arctic Ocean.

On June 4, I wrote about issues surrounding the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. June 5 was National Donut Day. So that makes it a better time than ever to talk about the so-called donut hole in the Arctic Ocean. There also is some misinformation on the donut hole out there that requires clarification. The Pew Charitable Trust’s website, while otherwise very informative, says that the donut hole is a mere 2.8 square kilometers, while Business Insider notes that the donut hole consists of “open water.” In fact, the National Snow and Ice Data Center notes that the North Pole, which lies within the donut hole, likely hasn’t been ice-free in 125,000 years.

The donut hole actually consists of some 1.1 million square miles of typically ice-covered water. The area’s name derives from its shape, which looks like an oddly squished donut hole according to current exclusive economic zone boundaries, which are based on the 200 nautical mile limit. The donut hole currently consists of international waters – the high seas or global commons, in other words. The donut hole’s existence is what gives legitimacy to the statements of officials from countries like China, most notoriously, who have said in the past that “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” The donut hole also opens the door for non-profit environmental organizations to call for the establishment of an Arctic marine park or preserve.

Interestingly, the shared desire of China and NGOs such as Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund means that their interests might be more closely linked than, say, those of an environmental NGO and a littoral state like Canada. A blog post published to Greenpeace’s website in July 2012 by Li Yan, who sailed aboard the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long’s voyage towards the North Pole, reflected on these similarities. He wrote that both the voyages of Xue Long and Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace’s ship which was on an expedition that same summer, “have important and overlapping interests in the future of the Arctic.” Li concluded by suggesting, “This precious place should not be invaded by oil drilling or other commercial activities. It belongs to everyone on the Earth.”

Oil drilling will likely not come to the donut hole anytime soon for two reasons. First, without territorial claims settled and legal regimes in place, oil corporations will shy away from this no-man’s land. Second, it is hundreds of miles away from the nearest landfall, making logistics exceedingly difficult. As it stands now, the donut hole also mostly overlaps with the deeper part of the Arctic Ocean rather than the continental shelf, meaning that drilling would have be both Arctic and deepwater.

One activity that could occur soon in principal, however, is deep sea mining. The United Nations’ International Seabed Authority has already issued numerous licenses for exploration in several parts of the high seas, namely in the Pacific. I wrote more about this issue recently in an article for The Maritime Executive. For the story, I communicated over email with United States Geological Survey research geologist James Hein, who remarked, “I think that a circum-Arctic country will mine in the Arctic much sooner than asteroid mining.”

Yet the Arctic Ocean is changing swiftly, with the ice cap shrinking in extent at least since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Researchers such as Scott Stephenson, a professor at the University of Connecticut, have predicted that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free and navigable by mid-century. This literal sea change could usher in new shipping routes and open new fisheries to exploitation – especially if certain species of fish migrate north in search of colder waters, as they have already been doing.

While it is unclear if shipping companies will actually take advantage of northern shortcuts, if the ice melts, it’s almost certain that fishing boats will try to make their way up there. The owners of some of the trawlers that operate in the North Pacific Ocean, an already treacherous area, staff the boats with workers from developing nations like Burma and the Philippines who have little say when it comes to safety or workers’ rights. This practice is broadly known as “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing” (IUU), and can occur in both territorial and international waters. You can bet that if the ice melts, many shady industrial fishing companies will send their boats north with no qualms. Given the world’s increasing appetite for fish and the rapacious way in which companies vacuum them out of the ocean, one might think their bodies were covered in shimmering gold scales.

In other “donut holes” of the world, like the area between Russian and American waters in the North Pacific or the area between Russian and Norwegian waters in the Barents Sea, IUU has already sparkes crises. Kevin Bailey, an employee of the Alaska Fisheries Center, wrote in an article published in a 2011 issue of Ecology and Society: “The little-known demise of the “Donut Hole” stock of pollock in the Aleutian Basin of the central Bering Sea during the 1980s is the most spectacular fishery collapse in North American history, dwarfing the famous crashes of the northern cod and Pacific sardine.” It took an international moratorium to ban fishing in the North Pacific donut hole, and it would likely require at a minimum international support to preemptively ban fishing in the Arctic Ocean’s donut hole.

When it comes to this remote area of the Arctic Ocean, the five littoral countries surprisingly appear to have the foresight necessary to manage it properly. This is similar to the type of foresight that allowed for the creation of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959 and the setting aside of that continent to science rather than militarization and natural resource exploitation – and the type of perspective that came too late in the North Pacific donut hole. To writ, on May 14, 2015, Russia and the United States were finally able to momentarily set aside their differences on Ukraine and sign an anti-IUU fishing agreement pertaining to the Arctic.

Trapped crab in Alaska. Photo: Boris Kasimov/Flickr.

Trapped crab in Alaska. Photo: Boris Kasimov/Flickr.

New York Times article from May 20, 2015 on the story is slightly misleading. First, while journalist Andrew Kramer claims that “the accord would regulate commercial harvests in an area far offshore — in the so-called doughnut hole of the Arctic Ocean, a Texas-size area of international water that includes the North Pole and is encircled by the exclusive economic zones of the coastal countries,” Undercurrent News reports that the agreement’s main aim is to stop illegal fishing of king crab in Russian waters.

Second, the U.S. and Russia alone cannot regulate what will happen in international waters. Even the five Arctic states together can’t do that. The only way they could regulate activities in the high seas of the donut hole would be to either a) garner support for an international moratorium* or b) somehow delimit the Arctic Ocean so that every square kilometer falls within a littoral state’s exclusive economic zone. If this were to happen, there would be no donut hole, and the Arctic Ocean would essentially be an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea (actually subject to a whole separate set of regulations under Articles 122 and 123 of UNCLOS) and no longer a “Polar Mediterranean” – at least not for fishing. For further reading, the K.G. Jebsen Centre for the Law of the Sea’s blog has a clear and detailed explanation of the history of attempting to regulate fishing in the Arctic Ocean.

Gaining international support for regulating fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean may be easier to do than delimiting the continental shelves. The U.S. initiated a conversation about the status of the Arctic Ocean’s fisheries in 2007. Lots of progress has been made since then, as exemplified by a consensus reached at a meeting of the five Arctic coastal states in Nuuk, Greenland in 2014 on regulating fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean, along with Russia’s signing of the aforementioned agreement in May of this year. A few months prior in January, World Policy Institute reported that experts from the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, Iceland, Denmark, and Greenland convened at the Roundtable on Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Issues at Shanghai’s Tongji University – again demonstrating the centrality of China in discussions about both the Arctic and fishing, since their country is the world’s biggest consumer of seafood. Whereas Chinese officials used to raise the ire of Arctic states when their officials claimed the Arctic Ocean to belong to all mankind, today, they tend to be a good deal more diplomatic, while officials from Arctic states increasingly find themselves coming to China to negotiate about issues at the top of the world.

Kleinur, Icelandic donuts. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Kleinur, Icelandic donuts. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Now, it’s time to chew on all that and enjoy the best donuts the Arctic has to offer: kleinur, Icelandic donuts that are shaped like diamonds. I suppose that means the Arctic’s donut hole really only makes sense in an English-language context. Chinese donuts tend to be long and churro-like, meaning that the “donut hole” might not translate very well into Mandarin, either.

*If you are in favor of an international moratorium, you can check out the Pew International Trust’s efforts to support one at this website.

The continental shelf: geological, legal, or geopolitical?

With Shell receiving conditional approval to drill in the Chukchi Sea in offshore Alaska, the phrase “continental shelf” has come up a lot lately. The term also appears whenever territorial disputes in the Arctic make the news. But maps such as this one published by the Economist don’t exactly clarify what the continental shelf is, nor how its geography and terrain are literally at the bottom of so many disputes in the Arctic and indeed worldwide. So how can we better depict this underwater terrain, especially up north?

The International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO) is the gold standard when it comes to cartographically displaying the texture of the continental shelf in the Arctic. The map has a resolution of 500 meters and much of the data comes from state-of-the-art multibeam surveys. You can read more about how the map was made in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in 2012.

However, what the map doesn’t display is geopolitical data. It’s interesting, for instance, to overlay the outlines of countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) onto the bathymetric data. But before we do that, let’s look a bit more at the shelf’s topography.

The geological shelf

Geology or politics at work? USCGC Healy (R) and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (L) mapping the Arctic seafloor in 2011. Photo: University of New Hampshire/NOAA.

Geology or politics at work? USCGC Healy (R) and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. St-Laurent (L) mapping the Arctic seafloor in 2011. Photo: University of New Hampshire/NOAA.

Using the ETOPO1 1 Arc-Minute Global Relief Model available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I made a simple map in ArcGIS displayed at the top of this post of the continental shelves in the Arctic.* While the continental shelf exists in reality as an underwater extension of a continent, it’s important to remember that even the idea of a continent is a social construct. If we were to redraw the world’s continents from an underwater, continental-shelf based perspective, we likely wouldn’t divide North America and Asia.

With this in mind, it becomes clear why it will be so hard to divvy up the continental shelf. Due to the presence of countries on top of the continental shelves, they will ultimately not be so much geologically as politically defined. Is the much-disputed Lomonosov Ridge, for instance, an extension of the Canadian, Russian, or Danish continental shelf? The fact that each country could claim it based on supposedly objective bathymetric evidence demonstrates the malleability of geology to political aims.

Yet divide the shelves they will, and that’s because sizable deposits of oil, gas, and other natural resources lie in wait. The continental shelves is where all Arctic offshore drilling will occur, with drilling looking something like this Gazprom diagram. As the U.S. Geological Survey stated in 2008, “The extensive Arctic continental shelves may constitute the geographically largest unexplored prospective area for petroleum remaining on Earth.” Their survey did not include the oil and gas resources that might lie in the seabed in the middle of the Arctic Ocean where the continental shelves drop off. By the time technology reaches a state where deepwater drilling in the Central Arctic Ocean becomes possible, humanity will hopefully have transitioned away from relying on fossil fuels.

Viewed in 3D, the nearly “landlocked” nature of the Arctic Ocean becomes evident, too. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest, shallowest ocean. Its low average depth of ~1,000 meters is partly a result of the extension of many continental shelves, especially Russia’s, far into the ocean. The oil and gas exploration taking place on the shelf right now is therefore happening in relatively shallow water. Shell’s plans this summer on the Alaskan continental shelf entail drilling in water depths of about 42 meters. This is much shallower than deepwater drilling, which is typically characterized as occurring in depths of more than 150 meters. While Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling faces a number of environmental challenges, deepwater is not one of them at the moment.

A 3D perspective also illustrates the degree to which Russia faces the north. Its major rivers, the Ob, Yenisey, and Lena, drain out to the Arctic Ocean. The image below reveals how the Ob River cuts a chasm into the tundra as it rushes north. In the Soviet era, some politicians and scientists sought to reverse the northward flow of the country’s three major rivers so that they would irrigate the deserts of Central Asia for agriculture instead of “wastefully” flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Now, as the country turns north again and looks out towards a warming ocean with new possibilities for shipping and natural resource extraction, many Russians may be glad that their rivers still flow to the “northern icy sea,” as the Arctic Ocean is called in Russian (северный ледовитый океан).

The legal shelf

The continental shelf is knee-deep in legalities, clauses, and commissions. Article 76 in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines the continental shelf of a Coastal State as:

“the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.”

The treaty was adopted in 1982, riding the crest of an upswing in the usage of the phrase “continental shelf” in English language publications as evinced by this Google ngram.

It’s hard to materially grasp the notion of the continental shelf when it is defined in terms of nautical miles, baselines, and continental margins – terms unfamiliar to most laypeople, which is why maps that integrate geology and geopolitics are important. In the Arctic, the two are inseparable, after all. The territorial disputes there all hinge on each Arctic coastal state’s claims to their respective continental shelf. Once a claim is recognized, a country earns the exclusive right to explore and exploit its resources, both living and non-living.

Claims are submitted to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), which is composed of 21 mostly male engineers, geologists, hydrographers, and other scientists from around the world. Members are elected for five year terms, with the current term lasting from 2012-2017. All of the commission’s members have real jobs, meaning that the UN CLCS is a side gig for them. That may explain why the commission’s website hasn’t been updated since September 2013. This group makes recommendations on country’s submitted claims, but they are expressly apolitical and often will not consider data from disputed areas. As such, countries can opt to only submit data in undisputed areas, coordinate claims with neighboring countries, or even make a joint claim.

Once a country’s submitted geological information is deemed scientifically sound, it is up to neighboring states to mutually delimit their borders. The United Nations will not delimit any borders on the continental shelf. If the countries can’t agree between themselves, they can go to the International Court of Justice – as happened in 1993 between Denmark and Norway over the area between Greenland and Jan Mayen. Canadian law professor Michael Byers has written a book called International Law and the Arctic that goes into the various submission options in much more detail for readers who are interested (and the section on continental shelf claim submissions is freely available to read on Google Books, too).

The geopolitical shelf

Now we can take a look at the bathymetric data with some geopolitical data overlaid. As the map above reveals, Russia has by far the largest continental shelf of any Arctic country. It’s no surprise that the country has moved the quickest of all the Arctic coastal states in exploiting its offshore oil and gas, for it simply has a much bigger amount of offshore territory to exploit. In Canada, by contrast, the country’s archipelago almost extends to the northernmost edge of the continental shelf. Delineations of the continental shelves and the respective EEZs also affect where current oil and gas exploration can take place. On the one hand, resolving territorial claims can be conducive to extraction since it removes gray areas from the map. Transnational corporations will simply not drill for oil in areas where the legal regime is unclear. On the other hand, corporations do have to be acutely aware of where EEZs lie so as not to wander into another country’s zone. In 2012, Shell’s leases in the Burger Prospect in the Chukchi Sea, issued by the U.S., stopped just before the boundary with the Russian EEZ. (This year’s exploration plans will take place a little bit farther west.) 

Shell's leases in 2012 go almost all the way up to the Russian EEZ.
A map of continental shelves doesn’t just hint at where future territorial claims and oil and gas exploration may take place. It also helps shed light on past movements of humans. For instance, Alaska and Chukotka, in eastern Russia, pretty much look like they lie on one extended sunken landmass, which some refer to as Beringia. This name evokes the migration that humans from Northeast Asia made across the Bering Strait to North America some 18,000 years ago. Back then, such political constructs of nations and continents didn’t exist. Instead, a grassy tundra covered the land for as far as the eye could see. Today, Beringia is an undersea relic of the Ice Age, with beluga whales and walruses swimming above the watery landscape once crossed by humans. Imagine how the geopolitics of the Arctic would differ today if the sea level was a few hundred feet lower and the continental shelves of the Arctic rose above the surface of the water.


*After making these maps, I came across GEBCO’s higher-resolution 30-arc second model gridded bathymetric chart of the oceans, which I will use in future maps.