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The Lion City Goes North: Unpacking Singapore’s Growing Participation at the North Pole

The Arctic is steadily becoming the epicentre of development and trade opportunities, but also a hotbed for conflicting interests. In this environment, there is an unlikely participant: Singapore. Despite being located approximately 8.000 miles away, Singapore is slowly but steadily establishing itself as a major player in the Arctic, contributing to the development of shipping routes and encouraging scientific advancement in the region. But the rivalry between Russia, China and the United States jeopardises Singapore’s plans. Read our latest by Siwat Varnakomola to find out more about the Lion City’s strategy, opportunities and potential pitfalls.




Introduction

The Republic of Singapore is an equatorial sovereign island state situated at the Southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, almost 8000 kilometres from the Arctic Circle (Tonami, 2016). Further, neither does the country have territorial claims nor a historical legacy of conducting scientific exploration in the Arctic region (Bennett, 2018). Consequently, Singapore would seem like an outsider with limited interest in the Arctic.


Nevertheless, Singapore has proactively engaged in circumpolar north affairs over the past decade to forge a more holistic Singaporean Arctic identity and policy. In 2013, Singapore was approved for observer status in the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental organisation governing Arctic affairs (Menon, 2019). More recently, Sam Tan, the special envoy for Arctic affairs, attended the Arctic Circle Greenland Forum in August 2022 to reaffirm Singapore's commitment to numerous Arctic initiatives over the past few years (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, 2022).


This ever-increasing engagement of Singapore in the circumpolar north has garnered the attention of scholars like Storey (2014; 2016), Tonami (2016), Bitzinger (2020), and Bloom (2022) on its interests, intents, and the future direction of Singapore's Arctic strategy. Hence, this article attempts to examine what Singapore wants from the Arctic region and in which direction it is heading amidst the growing challenges over the coming years, such as the intensifying US-China-Russia rivalry in the region (Bitzinger, 2020).


The article will begin by outlining Singapore's interests and how it justifies its presence in the Arctic before delving into its regional involvement. After examining the challenges Singapore may face in the coming years, the article will conclude that Singapore will continue to cast eyes on the Arctic region for the foreseeable future, as its existence hinges partly on changes at the North Pole.


The odd one out? Singapore’s interests in the Arctic region

Recent years have witnessed a substantial retreat of ice concentration in the Arctic, transforming the region into a space where countries compete for emerging strategic resources, such as oil and natural gas (Leksyutina & Zhang, 2022; Menon, 2019). Unlike other Asian countries - India, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, Singapore seems less interested in capitalising on these resources (Bloom, 2022; Lanteigne, 2020; Leksyutina & Zhang, 2022). Instead, Singapore’s regional interests can be divided into three categories.


Firstly, Singapore prioritises climate mitigation and sustainable development in the Arctic region because Singapore regards the ramifications of the climate crisis as one of the most serious threats to its existence (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, 2021b). As a result of the climate crisis, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, and a hotter and wetter climate would contribute to a loss of the nation’s territories and threaten its people’s well-being (Storey, 2016; Bennett, 2018; Menon, 2019). As sea levels keep rising, climate change will continue to drive Singapore’s engagement in the Arctic for years.


Secondly, the opening of the Arctic shipping routes, such as the Northern Sea Route (NSR), has been factored into Singapore’s involvement in the Arctic. Bridging together Europe and Asia, the NSR is expected to replace the Malacca Straits-Suez Canal route and is estimated to substantially lower the shipping distances, expenses, and times between the two continents (Bitzinger, 2020). Moreover, the volume of traffic on this route is likely to grow over the next few years (Tonami, 2016). Hence, Singapore, whose economy primarily relies on international shipping through the Malacca Straits-Suez Canal route, perceives the NSR as a significant threat. Therefore, Singapore has been attempting to better comprehend the dynamics of the NSR and assess the potential impacts of this route on its future maritime interests by participating in the Arctic Council’s working groups and intergovernmental forums related to the NSR, such as the 2021 Russian-Singapore Arctic Dialogue (Indiplomacy, 2022).


As Storey (2016) and Lanteigne (2020) point out, the commercial viability of the NSR has yet to be fully known, and the development of this route is likely to take years. For this reason, the NSR seems unlikely to compete with the Malacca-Suez Canal route in the coming years.


Thirdly, despite the nebulous challenges Singapore might face, it acknowledges the business opportunities provided by the NSR for its maritime industry. Spearheaded by Keppel Offshore & Marine (Keppel), ST Marine, and SembCorp, Singapore has much potential to provide the Arctic states with the service of shipbuilding, offshore engineering, and port operation (Chen, 2016). Being the first Asian shipyard to manufacture icebreakers, Keppel handed over two icebreakers to Russia’s oil company Lukoil in 2008 (Storey, 2016; Tonami, 2016). In 2017, Keppel also provided a new multifunctional ice-class vessel named MPV Everest to New Orient Marine, a subsidiary of Luxemburg-based Maritime Construction Services (Offshore Energy, 2017). Four years later, Kepple delivered the first LNG bunkering vessel to the Russian firm Gaspromneft Shipping (Bahtić, 2021). These examples prove how Singapore can contribute considerably to Arctic maritime development and exploration. As a result, the Arctic states perceive Singapore as one of the principal maritime providers, elevating its profile in the region.


These interests have shaped Singapore’s Arctic identity and have become the justification for its Arctic involvement until now (Bennett, 2018; Lanteigne, 2020). Singapore has positioned itself as an Arctic stakeholder, justified by three facts; Changes in Arctic ice concentration threaten Singapore’s existence, the opening up of Arctic sea lanes could undermine Singapore’s profitability of the traditional Malacca Straits route, and the business opportunities the NSR may offer to Singapore’s maritime industry.


In conclusion, Singapore's Arctic participation is and will continue to be driven by the challenges presented by the climate crisis in the High North, the development of the NSR, and the financial opportunities for Singapore's marine industry.


Singapore’s emerging Arctic strategy: a constructive engagement?

Despite Singapore’s increasing participation in the Arctic, the island state still has not yet released an official comprehensive strategy guiding its activities (Leksyutina & Zhang, 2022). Overall, Singapore’s engagement in the circumpolar north could be conceptualised as constructive, attempting to build trust among the Arctic states and support their advantageous initiatives while keeping an eye on the larger Arctic environment.


Singapore’s approach is demonstrated through its nation branding efforts. By participating in myriad Arctic-led initiatives and meetings, Singapore has sought to leverage its reputation in shipping, offshore engineering, and environmental conservation to portray itself as a credible partner for Arctic countries. Singapore was one of the leading advocates of the Polar Code in 2014, the United Nations International Maritime Organisation’s mandatory code of conduct for ensuring shipping safety and environmental conservation in the Polar regions (Tonami, 2016). Singapore has also consistently attended meetings and participated in working groups within the Arctic Council, such as the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), Protection of the Marine Environment, and Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (Storey, 2016). Contributing to the CAFF, Singapore’s Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve serves as a refuge for over 30 species of Arctic migratory birds (Bitzinger, 2020). For the latter two, Singapore claims to offer expertise in preventing oil spills, protecting biodiversity, and sustainable development (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, 2021a). Moreover, Singapore and Russia jointly organised a dialogue to explore the potential for co-improving the Arctic transport corridor and encouraging green shipping in the Arctic Ocean (Indiplomacy, 2022). These illustrations showcase how Singapore has proven itself a constructive player in the region by committing to various aspects of Arctic development.


Additionally, recent years have witnessed a series of state visits by high-ranking Singaporean officials to emphasise the importance of a robust partnership between Singapore and the Arctic States. Special envoy for Arctic Affairs, Sam Tan, visited Greenland to attend the Arctic Circle Forum in August 2022 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore, 2022), followed by Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vivian Balakrishnan, who visited Norway to discuss developments in Europe and the Arctic with ambassadors of all Nordic States - Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland (Hinrup, 2022). In this sense, Singapore affirms its Arctic partners that they are Singapore’s priority and that Singapore is in a position to support their development projects. Consequently, the Arctic states are beginning to consider Singapore an important partner (Storey, 2016).


Further, Singapore’s attempt to nation-brand among the Arctic states is reinforced by its efforts to provide scholarships to and steer cultural exchanges between the Singaporeans and the people of the Arctic countries (Burke & Saramago, 2018). As such, education appears to be one of Singapore’s tools to shape the Arctic states’ perception of Singapore’s presence in the region.


The above examples demonstrate Singapore’s pursuit of constructive engagement with the Arctic countries and the region. While Singapore is actively seeking to build trust among its Arctic partners through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, it is attempting to maintain a foothold in wide-ranging aspects of Arctic affairs. However, the intensification of great powers’ rivalry in the Arctic region, particularly following the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2022, may pose a significant challenge to Singapore’s position in the Arctic Circle in the coming years.


A challenge ahead: Swirling amidst the great powers’ rivalry in the Arctic

Over the previous years, there has been an emergence of the strategic triangle between the US, China, and Russia in which the three entities compete for prominence in the region. Having released its official Arctic policy in 2018, China has sought to build up its presence in all aspects of Arctic development, whether politics, economics, science, or culture (Varnakomola, 2022).


Meanwhile, Russia has initiated energy projects like the Chinese-backed LNG-Yamal project and has increased its military presence over its maritime territory (Lanteigne, 2020). Being part of the Arctic States, the US has actively sought to balance this geopolitical situation by keeping cautious eyes on China’s and Russia’s activities, especially after the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine (Bochove, 2022). The competition among these parties is likely to escalate over the next decade (Bitzinger, 2020; Bochove, 2022; Varnakomola, 2022).


Singapore acknowledges that the escalation of rivalry among the great powers would undermine its Arctic presence, which, in turn, may preclude its efforts to pursue its national interests. Consequently, Singapore might need to reconsider its strategy and find a way to capitalise on this US-China-Russia rivalry while continuing to collaborate constructively with the Arctic countries on climate mitigation and Arctic maritime advancement. On the one hand, Singapore would be in an excellent position to avoid any unintended conflicts resulting from the great powers’ rivalry. On the other, it can continue to cast eyes on the Arctic region, mainly where its interests are at stake.


Conclusion

The Arctic region has been considered in Singapore's national strategy since the nation's security is at stake due to the escalating climate crisis and the advancement of the northern sea routes. The rising sea levels would directly threaten Singapore’s existence, and the successful development of the Arctic shipping lanes would minimise the profits Singapore obtains from the Malacca Straits/Suez Canal route.


As this article has highlighted, Singapore has actively sought to gain footholds in various areas of Arctic affairs. Not only has it contributed to the Arctic developments and has offered technical assistance to help advance the Arctic shipping routes, but Singapore has also contributed to scientific advancement in the region.


In the face of the uncertainty resulting from the intensifying great powers’ rivalry over the Arctic Circle, Singapore is likely to retain its presence in the region, aiming at constructing its Arctic credibility, capitalising on business opportunities, and seeking areas for collaboration and trust among the Arctic participants.



This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

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