Friday 17 May 2013

Singapore gains observer status on the Arctic Council

It gains platform to participate in body that shapes future policies in icy north
By Esther Teo, The Straits Times, 16 May 2013

SINGAPORE has been granted permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, giving it a platform to participate in a body that shapes future policies in the icy northern region.

Four other Asian countries - China, India, Japan and South Korea - were also admitted as observers yesterday to the council, along with Italy.

Reacting to the news of Singapore's new status, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a statement: "I would like to thank the Arctic Council states for admitting Singapore as an observer.

"Singapore is not situated in the Arctic, but developments there - whether the melting of the ice cap or opening of new sea routes - will have important implications for Singapore as a low- lying island and international seaport," he said. "We look forward to contributing to the work of the Arctic Council."

The council, formed in 1996, groups the eight Arctic nations - the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Observer status gives countries the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.

The body addresses issues faced by Arctic governments and inhabitants of the region. It is gaining clout as sea ice thaws in the face of global warming to open up new trade routes and intensify competition for oil and gas - estimated at 15 per cent and 30 per cent respectively of undiscovered reserves.

The announcement was made at the Eighth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council held in Sweden's northernmost city of Kiruna yesterday and is seen as a victory for Singapore which has been lobbying for the place for 11/2 years.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) noted in a statement yesterday that Singapore submitted its application for observer status in December 2011. Singapore's special envoy for Arctic Affairs Kemal Siddique is also in Sweden.

The MFA noted that the work of the Arctic Council includes issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic region. The council also disseminates information, encourages education, and promotes interest in the Arctic.

China has been active in the polar region, becoming one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and agreeing to a free trade deal with Iceland, Reuters reported.

The council yesterday also ruled that the Europe Union could observe meetings until a final decision on its status was taken. EU members France, Germany, Spain and Britain have observer status.

Diplomats said Canada and other Arctic states objected to an EU ban on imported seal products. Indigenous groups say they depend on the seal trade, Reuters said.

Russia has long been sceptical of letting in the EU as an observer, arguing it has representation through its members Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told the meeting: "Despite the varied interests we have heard today from the permanent participants, there is nothing that should unite us quite like our concern for both the promise and challenges of the northernmost reaches of the Earth."

'Singapore is now an ocean state'
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 16 May 2013

SINGAPORE'S admission into the Arctic Council as a permanent observer is a significant move tied to the city's future existence and continued economic prosperity.

This means that Singapore can now attend the council meetings and gain insights into the significant changes in the region that will have an impact on the country. For instance, Singapore is concerned about fast-melting polar ice, which can erode the island-state's position as one of the world's busiest ports.

Celebrating the news, a jubilant Singapore team of diplomats and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was getting ready the champagne glasses when this reporter rang them.

Speaking to The Straits Times from Sweden, Singapore's Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs Kemal Siddique said: "Singapore is now an ocean state with an important maritime sector."

Getting the observer status in the council will also mark a significant change in the way the world sees Singapore: not just as a maritime nation, but a country with a part to play in protecting the world's ocean resources.

The Arctic now holds 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of oil.

A toehold in the Arctic will also give a leg up to Singapore businesses seeking opportunities in the North. PSA International can offer its expertise in running major port facilities to the Arctic which is seeing a shipping boom.

Keppel Singmarine, whose ice breakers are already cracking ice blocks in the Arctic, is now working on oil rigs which can work in freezing temperatures.

Singapore will also have faster access to Arctic data on the rising sea levels caused by the melting polar ice. It can then swiftly change its policies to prevent coastal flooding in Singapore.

The melting ice in the Arctic also endangers its spot as one of the world's busiest ports.

A new shipping route in the North is being carved out, cutting the travel time needed for ships to sail from Europe to Asia by half.

Singapore can also play a greater role in helping countries govern the oceans in a peaceful way.

Ambassador-At-Large Tommy Koh chaired the the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea about 30 years ago.

This work was a historic milestone as it provided the framework for the global governance of the world's oceans and seas. This law will now play an even more important role as the world's coastal population grows and man harvests more ocean resources.

Fuelled by strategic interest in cold North
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 21 May 2013

LAST week, news broke that Singapore had gained admission into an exclusive club in the cold North, the Arctic Council.

At first glance, it may seem odd for a tiny Republic on the equator to be joining a council whose members ring around the North Pole and focus on issues facing their territories.

But in fact, the move makes strategic sense for Singapore. It was also the culmination of four years of diplomacy.

Singapore's plan to join the Arctic Council as a permanent observer started in 2010. Foreign Affairs officials learnt that there was growing international interest in the melting of polar ice and the impact this would have on countries.

The melting ice could cause coastal flooding, a real problem for the island nation.

More importantly, the receding polar ice would also open up a Northern sea route through Arctic waters. This would severely threaten Singapore which is one of the world's busiest ports.

The new route via the North Pole can cut the time taken by ships from Europe to reach the East by half. It has the potential to divert shipping that has gone via the Suez Canal and the Malacca and Singapore straits.

The green light was given to Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers to try and gain entry into the Arctic Council.

Founded in 1996, the Arctic Council has eight permanent members: the United States, Russia, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. It is a policymaking body that produces binding international agreements among Arctic countries on areas such as pollution and marine conservation.

There is growing interest from others to join this council as the Arctic region has rich deposits of oil, gas and other minerals, which will become more accessible as the ice caps melt.

Singapore's efforts bore fruit last week when the country was admitted as a permanent observer in the council. It joins five other countries as new permanent observers to the council: China, Japan, South Korea, India and Italy. There are 26 other permanent observers, who can watch meeting proceedings and contribute to the council's working groups.

Former foreign minister George Yeo, in Australia when he read the news of Singapore's entry into the Arctic Council, told The Straits Times that becoming an observer on the council is of strategic importance to Singapore's long-term future.

"I'm sure we will play an active role and try to make a positive contribution to global sea transport in all its aspects," he said.

Singapore's formal application to join the council was praised by one permanent member as "first class". Applicants who sought the council's advice on how to gain admission were advised to consult the Singapore team.

From the word "go", Singapore officials worked like ubiquitous ants, engaging the permanent members and the Arctic indigenous communities.

It helped that Singapore's Ambassador to Norway, Mr Ng Ser Miang, had been in the post since 2001.

Veteran diplomat Kemal Siddique was also made Singapore's Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs. He had served as Singapore's Non-Resident Ambassador in four of the Arctic Council member countries - Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. These countries knew him well.

This led to his invitation by the Norwegian government to remote Svalbard, situated between Norway and the North Pole, last August when the Arctic members visited the islands there.

Mr Siddique met key officials of all eight member countries. He also visited the lands of the indigenous peoples of Alaska, the Nunavut in Canada, the Rovaniemi of Finland, among others.

Back in Singapore, officials began chiselling away at the Republic's emergent Arctic policy.

At the World Oceans Summit held in Singapore last year, it "articulated an intention to play a role in Arctic governance", wrote Stewart Watters and Aki Tonami, researchers at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Denmark.

They noted that "Singapore's Arctic diplomacy is driven primarily by an ambition to exploit an emerging market niche in which it sees itself as a technological and expertise leader".

Singapore, they wrote, has played a role in the International Maritime Organisation that is disproportionate to the size of the country. The Republic is also home to global leaders in offshore and marine engineering.

These areas are relevant to the Arctic Council's work as Singapore has strong knowledge of international ocean law and ways of developing global shipping.

Diplomatic efforts were supported by Singapore's expertise in areas relevant to council members.

In 2008, Keppel Singmarine broke new ground when it completed Asia's first two ice breakers for a subsidiary of Russian Lukoil. These ice breakers carve out shipping passages by breaking through huge blocks of Arctic ice.

Singapore is now developing the next generation of oil rigs and ships, including Arctic life boats for Arctic oil companies. Faster responses to emergencies in the Arctic are needed as the area opens up for more development.

Singapore is doing several Arctic research projects. Oceanic research - on topics like oil explorations in the harsh Arctic climate - is being done at the Centre for Offshore Research and Engineering at the National University of Singapore and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Singaporeans too are leaving their prints on the Arctic ice.

Philanthropist Lee Seng Tee has donated funds to the International Arctic Research Centre to establish a "Lecture in Arctic Studies" series. Ms Michelle Goh, a young Singapore biologist, is studying birds in the cold Arctic.

But Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Espen Barth Eide has warned the new observer members of the work that lies ahead: "To the new observers of the Arctic Council, there is no such thing as a free lunch."

For Singapore, entry into the council is just the beginning. The hard work continues.

Joining the Arctic queue
The overseeing body known as the Arctic Council holds a special meeting today. Singapore will know if it gets to become a permanent observer. Our writer finds out why an island almost on the Equator wants to join this Arctic club. The other story explains why cooperation has been the body's hallmark.
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 16 May 2013

SINGAPORE'S application for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council has raised eyebrows.

"Sometimes even a small event gives you a mental whiplash," wrote The Economist, referring to Singapore's 2011 application.

Whether Singapore is in or out will be announced today at the Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in Sweden.

The council was set up in 1996 to govern the ice-cap region and the eight permanent member countries that ring the North Pole: the United States, Canada, Russia, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark.

Then there are six countries with permanent observer status, which allows them to attend and contribute to council discussions. They are Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain. In the queue along with Singapore to join the latter group are China, India, Japan, South Korea, Italy and the European Union.

Even if Singapore does not get permanent observer status, it and the other applicants could be given ad hoc observer status. Here, it needs to seek approval to attend each council meeting.

Away from the glare of publicity, Singapore's Arctic policy has been steadily taking shape.

For the past few years, Singapore has been deepening its understanding of the Arctic and marketing its expertise in shipping, coastal management and maritime governance - all very relevant to the council's work.

It appointed veteran diplomat Kemal Siddique as its Special Envoy for Arctic Affairs.

Adopting a boots-on-the- ground strategy, he visited all eight permanent council member countries, as well as several Arctic indigenous communities, such as the Saami and the Inuit.

Singapore has clearly taken note of a comment by the Swedish Arctic Ambassador Gustaf Lind at one council meeting: "The Arctic is hot."

The Arctic now holds 30 per cent of the world's undiscovered gas and 13 per cent of oil. Home to one-fifth of the world's fisheries, it includes the Barents and Norwegian seas - areas rich in seafood.

New shipping route

WHY does Singapore want to join the Arctic Council?

As a permanent observer, Singapore will get to attend working group sessions, giving it an insight into the significant changes in the region that will have an impact on the country. For instance, Singapore is concerned about fast melting polar ice, which can erode the island-state's position as one of the world's busiest ports.

Scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to be relatively ice-free between 2020 and 2050. As the ice recedes, a new route via the North Pole region is appearing, cutting the time taken by ships in Europe to reach the East by half.

Last year, 46 ships sailed through this new route which has the potential to divert shipping that all this while has gone via the Suez Canal and Singapore.

But Singapore is not too flustered; while there could be a dip in its shipping business, it needs to adapt and find new opportunities. It did just that in 2008, when Keppel Singmarine pulled off a brilliant strategy by building Asia's first two ice breakers for a Russian company, Lukoil.

Named Toboy and Varandey, the vessels - designed to operate in freezing temperatures as low as minus 45 deg C - can cut through ice blocks over 1.7m thick or about the length of a bathtub.

Keppel is now working on the world's first Arctic ice-worthy and green jack-up floating oil rig and other drilling rigs.

Singapore is also developing the next generation of vessels, including Arctic life boats.

The Republic also has broad expertise in running major port facilities and can help develop new Northern port infrastructure.

Norway's Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide is confident that the new route will not badly affect Singapore's shipping business.

For now, the Arctic route, he said, can be used only to ship goods, such as iron ore, that do not need urgent delivery. It is also passable to ships only during summer with the help of ice breakers.

"If you run a company based on stability, you may want to take a warm route in order to avoid any hiccups," he said.

Coastal management

THERE is another problem caused by the melting Arctic ice.

As a low-lying island, Singapore is vulnerable as rising sea levels can wipe out its existence.

To prepare for the rise in sea levels, Singapore has raised the minimum level required for coastal reclamation areas. Previously, building owners had to make sure that the height of the reclaimed level had to be 1.25m above the highest recorded tide levels.

This level has been now set higher, at an additional 1m.

Singapore's experience in coastal management will increase in value as experts say that half of the world's population, or 3.4 billion people, live in coastal areas. This figure is expected to balloon to six billion by 2025.

Maritime stakeholder

SINGAPORE also brings to the Arctic table its expertise in cleaning oil spills, important to the ecologically vulnerable Arctic region.

The island nation also has experience in getting international shipping groups to use the ocean routes in a responsible way.

For example, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore is investing up to $100 million to provide incentives to owners of Singapore-flagged vessels that can create energy efficient and environment-friendly ship designs.

Oceanic research - on topics such as doing oil explorations in the harsh Arctic climate - is being done at the Centre for Offshore Research and Engineering at the National University of Singapore and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

Birds and the bees

THE protection of flora and fauna is a big item on the Arctic Council's agenda.

The feather in Singapore's cap that could convince the council members to admit Singapore is the way the island has rolled out its welcome mat each year to Arctic birds, such as the Pacific Golden Plover and Sanderling.

Leaving their freezing Arctic homes in the winter months for the warmer climate in the South, these birds stop over at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Seletar dam areas. They rest and refuel on seafood before resuming their epic journey.

At one Arctic meeting, Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and an avid bird watcher, raised the excitement levels of his audience as he regaled them with accounts of how Singapore respects and gives refuge to birds.

If Singapore gets a toehold in the council today, there will be good reason to pop the bubbly.

Hands across the melting ice
By James F. Collins, Ross A. Virginia And Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Published The Straits Times, 16 May 2013

WITH global warming rapidly melting Arctic sea ice and glaciers making valuable stores of energy and minerals more accessible, voices of doom are warning of inevitable competition and potential conflict - a new "Great Game" among the five Arctic coastal nations.

In fact, Arctic states from North America, Europe and Russia, working with indigenous peoples and a number of non-Arctic states, already have taken steps to ensure just the opposite: that the Arctic remains a zone of cooperation, peace, and stable, sustainable development.

The Arctic Council - the intergovernmental organisation for the eight Arctic states comprising Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States - has created a forum for cooperation and momentum towards a responsible approach to the region's issues.

Today, a ministerial meeting of the council in Sweden will face urgent issues dealing with the environment, shipping and governance.

In anticipation of this meeting, more than 40 leading Arctic scholars, government officials, industry leaders and representatives for indigenous peoples met in Washington in February under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dartmouth College, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of the Arctic to examine issues facing the region - energy, health, shipping, security and governance - and to make recommendations for action to the Arctic Council.

Arctic energy and mineral riches eventually will be developed, but harsh weather conditions will persist and fluctuating world prices will make the timing of development uncertain.

The shale gas revolution is already delaying some Arctic energy projects. Arctic shipping, although increasing as seasonal sea ice declines, will remain largely regional, dedicated to the transport of Arctic energy and mineral resources and the supply of local populations and industry. Difficult sea ice conditions and the consequent unpredictability of shipping schedules will severely limit interest in developing trans-Arctic Ocean container shipping.

The Arctic states have addressed potentially divisive issues in an orderly manner, and the prospects for resolving issues in the region by force are at present slight. The most accessible Arctic oil and gas resources are located within state borders or the universally agreed-upon 200-nautical-mile (nm) Exclusive Economic Zone of the coastal states and thus not subject to dispute.

The Arctic coastal states are pursuing claims for territorial shelf extension beyond 200nm for exclusive access to additional oil and gas reserves, but they have agreed their differences will be settled under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and through diplomatic channels.

The Arctic Council is in a unique position to strengthen this trend. The United States can help greatly by ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention, giving more policy level attention to US interests in the Arctic and using the US chairmanship of the council, beginning in 2015, to build on the work the council has done.

A binding search-and-rescue accord was reached in 2011 by the Arctic Council. The upcoming ministerial meeting is an opportunity to strengthen the security and well-being of the region.

This can be accomplished by encouraging cooperation of the region's militaries and coast guards in emergency/disaster response, providing better situational awareness for Arctic Ocean shipping safety and prevention of illegal activities, and the establishment of a forum to share maritime information.

The ministerial meeting should also urge the International Maritime Organisation to adopt a mandatory polar code for ships operating in polar waters, and regulations for safe operations of cruise ships; establish an Arctic economic forum to promote public/private partnerships and help resolve issues such as environmental pollution; establish a clearing house for public and private data on oil spill preparedness, prevention and remediation; and provide more capacity for indigenous peoples and their organisations to research and develop a health care system consonant with their culture.

One key governance issue facing the ministerial council is the requests from several non-Arctic states and the European Union to become permanent Arctic Council observers. Bringing them in would open up council proceedings and underscore that many Arctic issues, such as environmental pollutants, are global ones.

At the same time, there would be little benefit to Arctic governance from making the council a formal international organisation; nor is there a perceived need for a comprehensive Arctic treaty.

Dangerous conflict in the region over valuable resources remains a remote possibility, but the council must take constructive steps to ensure that the Arctic continues to develop as a venue for cooperation among Russia and the Arctic states of Europe and North America.


James F. Collins is director of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US Ambassador to Russia. Ross A. Virginia is professor and director of the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College. Kenneth S. Yalowitz is senior fellow at the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth and former US Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

* No threat to Singapore yet from Arctic shipping route
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 19 Sep 2013

A CHINESE container ship has made the news for being the first commercial vessel to go through the Arctic sea route, reviving questions over the Suez Canal's influence, and Singapore's position as a maritime hub.

If this new route - the Northern Sea Route (NSR) - eventually becomes commercially viable, ships may bypass Singapore, which is at present a key shipping node on the route via the Suez Canal, a 193km passage between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

The Chinese-flagged Yong Sheng skipped the Singapore route, reaching Rotterdam from Dalian via the NSR on Sept10. The trip took 34 days - 11 days shorter than the duration if the Suez Canal had been used.

The event also points to increasing interest in the NSR, as melting polar ice opens up the Arctic sea passage, enabling ships to use the route for three months during the summer.

This year, to date, more than 370 permits have been issued by the Russian authorities to ships wanting to use the NSR, a big jump from just four issued in 2010. A number of the ports along the NSR are in Russia.

But analysts do not expect the threat posed by the NSR to business via the Suez Canal and Singapore to be immediate.

Singapore, situated in a warmer climate near the equator, provides shipping facilities throughout the year.

Last year, 46 ships made the NSR route, carrying just two million tonnes of cargo, in non-commercial vessels. By contrast, the Suez Canal, a vital artery of world trade, last year handled 17,225 vessels carrying 928.5 million tonnes.

It has been plain sailing too for Singapore port operator PSA International, which last year turned in impressive results even though the global economy was weak. Annual revenue increased 4 per cent to $4.5 billion over 2011 and the five PSA terminals handled a record figure of more than 30 million containers last year.

Still, shipping giants like Maersk Line are watching developments in the NSR closely. Mr Lars Mikael Jensen, its head of Asia-Europe trade, told The Straits Times that while the company is reviewing the option of using the NSR, it does not see the route as having a major impact on routings via the Suez Canal.

"The ability to combine loops for large markets like South China and South-east Asia with Mediterranean cargo is not viable via the Northern Sea route," he said.

Singapore offers its shipping customers links to 600 ports in over 120 countries. Ships currently plying the NSR can only travel from one port to another, with no opportunity to transit at ports to offload cargo, reload new cargo, or refuel for a longer journey.

Many shipping companies also note that sea levels along the NSR's coast are not deep enough to accommodate larger ships carrying heavier freight. There are also no technologically advanced port facilities with bunkering and container handling facilities.

There are also concerns about a lack of emergency response facilities in case of accidents at sea.

Professor Andrew Palmer, of the National University of Singapore's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who studies the Arctic, said ships using the NSR risk drifting ice blocks hitting them.

Meanwhile, to prepare for competition, not just from the NSR but the rest of the shipping world, Singapore is not standing still. It is building a new mega-port in Tuas and the first phase of development is expected to be ready in 10 years' time.

By then, this mega-port will handle an even greater volume of shipping - up to 65 million standard-sized containers a year, slightly more than double the figure reached by the existing port facilities last year.

Green technology will also be used and Tuas will be able to manage new generations of larger and more complex container ships.

Singapore's plan for this new port is a message aimed at the shipping community's future plans in Singapore. "We build now, so you can use later," is a marketing strategy that will reassure shipping firms that even if the NSR develops as a commercially viable route, Singapore can offer efficient and reliable service.

For now, the NSR is a fledgling route beset with problems.

Whether it becomes a regular shipping route depends on developments elsewhere. For example, territorial disputes in the South China Sea could affect shipping routes in the region, potentially favouring the NSR.

Any threat to the Suez Canal route is linked to political instability in Middle Eastern states such as Yemen.

The Middle East also has some of the world's biggest oil producers. If oil prices rise because of political problems there, the shorter NSR route will become attractive as less fuel will be needed.

Also, with advanced technologies in shipbuilding, the NSR could come into operation much sooner than currently envisaged.

Singapore's answer to the NSR is to provide modern maritime facilities and services that place a premium on secure and prompt delivery of goods across the oceans.

It is also keeping its ears open to developments in the Arctic by gaining permanent observer status in the Arctic Council this year.

The council - a multilateral forum for discussions on Arctic shipping, energy, environment and security - allows observer countries to contribute to discussions that can influence the decisions of its permanent members.

Singapore will use its membership status to better understand and respond to the shipping challenges from the icy Arctic.


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