What Is the Arctic? It’s Complicated.
How do you define the Arctic?
The answer to the question depends on whom you ask.
Russia might describe it as the country’s new frontier for oil and gas. Norwegians would see it as a destination for tourists wanting to marvel at the aurora-lit skies. In the case of the indigenous people like the Inuit and the Yupik, the Arctic is also ground-zero for their survival against the effects of climate change.
The truth is, the Arctic is all the above and more. The region that falls inside the Arctic Circle – an imaginary circle around the North Pole located at about 66° 33' North – comprises the high seas as well as land and seas belonging to eight different countries, ranging from the U.S. to Canada to Russia to Scandinavian nations. The culturally diverse group has worked together on common causes, but their competing economic interests also have brought some of them to a negotiation table from time to time.
The political landscapes surrounding the region will likely grow even more complex as an increasing number of non-Arctic nations are eager to become an Arctic partner in the developments of a new sea route and natural resources as well as for the protection of the environment.
So, what does the Arctic really mean to these stakeholders? And, how do those living in the Arctic Circle feel about it?
Prof. Shinichiro Tabata of Hokkaido University will share his outlook for the Arctic’s future from the social sciences standpoint.
Ask an Expert: Shinichiro Tabata (Hokkaido University)
Prof. Tabata is a renowned economist with expertise in statistical and comparative analysis of Russia’s economic growth. His research topics include the Russian gas and oil industry’s impact on the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). He has served as the director of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University through January 2017, and has supported the center’s research projects on interregional comparative studies, border research and indigenous studies as well as the ArCS’ interdisciplinary research on the Arctic region. He currently serves as a professor at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center and the university’s Arctic Research Center. (Click here for his bio.)
One of the positive consequences of the end of the Cold War may be the collaborative relationships forged amongst the Arctic nations that share common goals. In 1996, the Arctic Council was established with eight countries that have jurisdiction over land and/or seas located within the Arctic Circle as its members. The members are Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States of America. The Council acts as the intergovernmental forum to promote “cooperation, collaboration and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues,” particularly sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic, according to the Council. Six organizations representing the indigenous peoples of the Arctic also hold “permanent participants” status.
“Among all the members, Russia by far has the most say,” Prof. Tabata says. “Russia accounts for 60 percent of the economic activities in the region. The existing Arctic sea route also lies to the north of Russia. I bet Russians think the Arctic Ocean belongs to their country.”
Humanities and Social Sciences Through Arctic Lens
The Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University, where Prof. Tabata works, has conducted research on Russian and Eastern European people and societies for more than 60 years. In 2014, the center added “Eurasia” to its original name of The Slavic Research Center to reflect the range of geography and ethnicity encompassed in its research.
“Most people think ‘Slav’ means Russian descent. In reality, though, it refers to all ethnic groups from Central and Eastern Europe,” Prof. Tabata says. “Hungary, Romania, Estonia, and Central Asian countries and Caucasus as well as Russia are all part of it. Our center’s studies now include Mongolia and Greenland, as well.”
Hokkaido University is known for its cultural and anthropology research, which includes studies of Siberia and indigenous people, such as the Ainu. Prof. Tabata says humanities and social sciences studies through the Arctic lens can offer interesting insights.
“The Sami people in Scandinavia and the Ainu have things in common culturally, which I think stems from them having had to adjust to the cold climate,” Prof. Tabata says. “But, the traditional area study framework doesn’t allow us to bunch them together as the people of the Arctic. So, I take a different approach to research, which is to look at all areas within the Arctic Circle, from Canada to the U.S. to Russia to the Scandinavian countries, as one region. Speaking of which, I believe sustainability is the biggest issue facing the Arctic region as a whole from the economic and social standpoint,” Prof. Tabata says.
Russia’s New Frontier for Oil and Gas
The world is growing keenly aware of how much natural resources the Arctic region has to offer. Fish are just as abundant off the coast of Northern Norway and in the Icelandic coast as in the Bering Sea. Northern Alaska accommodates many crude oil terminals. Russia and Norway have often negotiated their rights over the enormous undersea oil and gas reserves spanning both countries’ territories.
The region’s oil and gas reserves are particularly drawing the world’s attention as Russia tries to further tap into them.
“Russia ranks the number one or two in the world in terms of oil and gas production and exportation as well as their reserve amounts. And so, the petroleum industry is extremely important to the country’s economy,” Prof. Tabata says. “In fact, it was the petroleum resources in Baku on the Caspian Sea that propelled Imperial Russia’s industrialization in the late 19th Century. Then, Volga-Ural emerged as the “second Baku” in the 1940s and became the hub of the Russian oil and gas production before Western Siberia took over the spot. Production is plateauing at both locations now, which is why the industry is migrating farther north and east for exploration and drilling. Given the industry’s significance to the country’s economy, the Arctic development isn’t just important; it’s a necessity for Russia.”
Putting Yamal on the World Economic Map
Among all the areas being developed for potential production of oil and gas, Russia is particularly invested in the Yamal Peninsula. Yamal means “the end of the world” in the local language. Permafrost covers most of the peninsula, where indigenous people maintain their traditional nomadic lifestyle by herding reindeer.
“Since 2007, the government has been working on the project to construct a liquefied natural gas production facility here to take advantage of the large oil and gas reserve. They are constructing a seaport, as well. Once a new Arctic sea route opens, the port will allow exports to Europe year around and to Asian countries, such as Japan and China, during summer,” Prof. Tabata says.
But, to get to the point, Russia need to rely on other countries for cutting-edge deep-sea drilling and LNG production technologies as the country lacks such expertise required for the development.
“American capital has been involved in Russian oil and gas exploration since the Baku days. Russia couldn’t develop any additional oil or gas fields without the technological support from the U.S., Japan, France and the Netherlands, among other countries. Russia also needs Asian countries that import its petroleum products to show interest in the project,” Prof. Tabata says.
Japan has served on the Arctic Council as an observer since 2013 when the Council granted the status at its eighth ministerial meeting. As of July 31, 2017, there are 13 non-Arctic states holding observer status, including such Asian countries as the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea.
“The Arctic has precious metals and other valuable natural resources that are important to the Japanese economy. Another and more crucial reason for Japan being involved in the region is that Japan is on the future Arctic sea route,” Prof. Tabata says. “Also, given China’s and Korea’s strong interest in the Arctic, it is imperative for Japan to maintain a presence on the Council.”
If all these countries’ attention is any indication, the Arctic is on its way to becoming a major stage for international politics, business and science.
Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Photographs: Yuji Iijima unless noted otherwise
Released on: Aug. 21, 2017 (The Japanese version released on March 10, 2017)