The paper chase

Analysis | Japan is no newcomer to the Arctic, but with the release of its white paper about the region last week we’re now a little wiser about its developing interests there

Speak softly and issue a white paper (Photo: OZZO Photography/Arctic Circle)

Marc Lanteigne

Among the non-Arctic states that have recently begun to better define and expand their circum-polar policies, Japan has not had the same international visibility as China and western Europe. Tokyo sought to address that omission during the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavík this month with the announcement, during the first day of the event, that the government was releasing its first ever white paper on the country’s comprehensive Arctic policy (a provisional English translation can be read on Arctic Portal).

The sudden announcement of the paper’s release was made at the conference by Japan’s Arctic ambassador, Kazuko Shiraishi (pictured above), and was followed by a breakout panel discussion about Japan’s wider Arctic initiatives in which Ms Shiraishi and other regional specialists took part. Earlier in the day, the specifics of the paper were announced in Tokyo by the Japanese Headquarters for Ocean Policy, led by Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.

The white paper was noteworthy in comparison with similar documents released by other non-Arctic states in recent years for its strong focus on promoting the rule of law in the Far North as well as maximising the use of Arctic sea routes for shipping and the need to encourage regional security while discouraging outright militarisation. More traditional Arctic concerns, including environmental protection, support for regional institutions and the rights of indigenous persons, were also outlined. But the document strongly signified Japan’s concerns about traditional and economic security issues in the region.

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The paper was released during a year when Japan has sought to deepen and modernise its overall strategic policies. In April, Mr Abe met with US President Barack Obama, resulting in alterations to the countries’ bilateral security treaty to allow for expanded operations and co-ordination with third parties. And, in September, a controversial reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution which would allow for the potential deployment of Japanese forces overseas was passed into law. Ms Shiraishi has recommended that Japan and the US could also co-operate more closely on Arctic research and development.

The inclusion of a short paragraph on national security in the white paper suggested that Tokyo views the Arctic not only as a political and economic area of interest but also an area of potential strategic differences, especially as the region opens up to outside development. As Fujio Ohnishi wrote in his chapter in the just-published 2015 Arctic Yearbook, Japan’s Arctic policy has traditionally rested on three pillars, namely diplomacy, science and business.

Tokyo was one of the original fourteen High Contracting Parties of the Spitsbergen Treaty in 1920, which clarified the sovereignty of Svalbard while allowing for commercial use of the islands by treaty signatories. Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) has operated a research station at Ny-Ålesund, in Svalbard, since 1991, and the country’s Maritime Self-Defence Forces (MSDF) have maintained an icebreaker for polar research, the Shirase, out of the port of Yokosuka since 2009. Japan was successful in obtaining formal observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013, the same year that the foreign ministry named an Arctic ambassador.

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Like other Asian states that have begun to develop Arctic policies over the past decade (including China, Singapore and South Korea) Japan has expressed greater interest not only in the potential for Arctic resource development as the region becomes more accessible due to climate change, but also the expanded use of Arctic sea routes as shortcuts for trade.

As Aki Tonami explained in a recent article, the economic potential of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has now been studied in Japan from a variety of different angles, including by governmental and research institutions, and also on the prefecture level as the government of Hokkaido began its own initiative in 2012 to study the economic benefits of the NSR on the local economy, including the possibility of Hokkaido developing as a hub for future Arctic shipping. The new white paper called upon Japan to increase its study of the route so that it can be more extensively used in an effective and safe manner.

One of the conclusions which can be drawn from this year’s Arctic Circle gathering was that many governments and economies outside of the region were now recognising the importance of the Arctic to their foreign policy agendas. As the Arctic continues to gain greater global attention, Japan is seeking to distinguish itself among the crowded field of regional stakeholders with its new policy paper.

The author is a Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo. He would like to thank Wrenn Yennie Lindgren for her assistance with background information for this article.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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