Singapore: Emerging in the Arctic?

31 May, 2013    ·   3968

Narayani Basu discusses the implications of Singapore's recent election to the Arctic Council for the country

Earlier this month, the Arctic Council agreed to expand to include six new nations, including Singapore, as observer states. The decision sees the entry of some of the world’s most important emerging powers, as well as countries like India and Singapore, reflecting the potential opportunities for the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the region, as well as the Arctic’s corresponding increase in geopolitical weight. As a permanent observer, Singapore will attend working group sessions. Although it will not have voting rights, it will certainly be able to contribute to key discussions about climate change and northern development. 

What are the interests that Singapore has in the region? Do its interests speak of a calibrated Arctic policy? Even if the Northern Route, via Russia, becomes navigable, would it impact Singapore’s established status as a global shipping hub?

In their paper ‘Singapore: An Emerging Arctic Actor’ (2012), Watters and Tonami have argued for the interests that Singapore has in the Arctic. They point out that as a major global shipping hub, Singapore has played an important role in governance regimes and institutions for ocean management, like the  International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for a number of years.  For Singapore, these are questions of vital interest, and any discussion on ocean governance must be inclusive of all stakeholders. With global warming affecting the Arctic and bringing it into the international spotlight, it is no wonder that Singapore would like to keep an eye on developments in the region. 

From a domestic perspective, they argue, Singapore’s direct intervention in the management of the economy means that wider economic concerns do, in part, drive Arctic engagement.  Current projections regarding the importance of the Arctic assert that north Asian ports could benefit from a reliable Arctic shipping route. 'As a large number of ships transiting the Malacca Straits are either Chinese or carrying cargo to China, this would impact Singapore' (Watters and Tonami, 2012).  The Malacca Straits are an acknowledged strategic chokepoint, and with piracy and political instability in the Middle East, potentially impacting the Strait of Hormuz, the case for alternative cheaper and shorter transit routes through the Arctic seems compelling. An ice-free Northern Sea route cutting across Russian territorial waters – the East Siberian Sea and the Barents Sea – offers the potential to drastically reduce the shipment times of cargo to global markets. A key benefit of this would be that global reliance on sea routes, through the Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden, would be reduced.

Nevertheless, these are, at the moment, purely hypothetical situations. For the foreseeable future, sailing the northern waters will be possible only for a few months each other, with even that period remaining hazardous due to floating ice. Many sections of the alternative Arctic transit routes, such as the Bering Straits, have shallow waters, rendering them un-navigable for heavy container ships. More importantly, there is no time-line for climate change, leaving long-range strategic forecasting a wholly unpredictable and unviable enterprise.

Singapore’s application for observer status at the Arctic Council in 2011, and the appointment of an Arctic envoy in early 2012 indicate that it does, indeed, have Arctic ambitions. This being said, it must be remembered that at this point in time, Singapore’s ambitions remain just that – ambitions. Its interest in applying for membership to the Council more than likely represents an extension of its interest in developments in international maritime policy. Economically, however, Singapore’s offshore and maritime industries are being geared to develop drilling techniques and port infrastructure suitable for regions like the Arctic – a move that could possibly create niche markets which will be critical for the global economy as interest in the Arctic swells.

At this point, then,   whether Singapore’s efforts to contribute to Arctic governance do indeed represent a long-term foreign policy commitment, or if the country’s diplomatic campaign to enter the Council is driven primarily by an ambition to exploit an emerging market, is not yet clear.