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A look at East Asian diplomacy in the Arctic

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic

The chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Yu Zhengsheng, recently visited Finland, Sweden and Denmark. In Finland, the president and CEO of the Confederation of Finnish Industries (E.K.), Jyri Häkämies, expressed that the two countries’ expertise are complementary. Elaborating on this point, he suggested that the two countries should collaborate on joint research and technology projects to tackle environmental and energy challenges. In Denmark, where Yu met with the Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and the Crown Prince, climate and energy also figured high on the agenda. Like many of the Nordic countries, Denmark is strong in green technology, an area in which China is keen to develop.

During Yu’s visit to Sweden, the government promoted its green industry, too. In Stockholm, Yu toured Hammarby sjöstad, a neighborhood that is being redeveloped along environmentally-friendly lines. The Swedish MFA notes that environmental technologies are responsible for a disproportionate amount of trade between Sweden and China.

There have been numerous bilateral visits by political figures and diplomats from East Asia to the Arctic countries over the past year. Former president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, visited Norway and Greenland last September, while former Premier Wen Jiabao visited Sweden and Iceland in April 2012. In April 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia with 100 Japanese businessmen in tow to discuss energy cooperation, among other issues.

Permanent diplomatic representation

While many high-level bilateral visits are occurring, permanent diplomatic representation by the East Asian countries in some of the Arctic states still lags. High-level visits by Asian politicians seem to follow in the paths of capital and trade, whereas diplomatic missions appear to follow in the paths of people.

Within the eight Arctic states, where exactly are the embassies and consulates of China, Japan, and Korea located? I made a chart based on information pulled from the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean foreign ministries showing where each country has diplomatic offices.

China, Japan and Korea are all exercising increased diplomatic and political thrusts into the Arctic countries, but in different manners. While the visits of Chinese and Korean officials target the Nordic countries to talk Arctic and environmental cooperation, China’s diplomatic representation is actually strongest in Russia. China has five consulates in Russia, the same number as it has in the U.S., perhaps pointing to at least a traditional equivalence in the weight that the U.S. and Russia hold in Chinese foreign policy. In comparison, Japan and Korea have 17 and 12 consulates in the U.S., respectively, while each country only has four consulates in Russia.

Many of the Japanese and Korean consulates are located along the west coast of the U.S. This speaks to the high levels of Japanese and Korean nationals and people of Japanese and Korean heritage in places like Washington, Oregon, and California. Both Japan and Korea notably also have consulates in Anchorage, while China does not. Japan has more historic ties with Alaska than Korea and especially China due to its long involvement in the North Pacific for both fishing and even as a theatre of war.

Overall, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean embassies and consulates are located in the same places with a few exceptions. China has an additional consulate in Gothenburg, Sweden while lacking one in Anchorage, Alaska. China does not have a consulate in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, on the island of Sakhalin near Japan and Korea, while it does have one in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city. Japan has a consulate in Khabarovsk, which is also quite close to Japan, while Korea has one in Irkutsk on the shores of Lake Baikal. Notably, Korea does not have an embassy in Iceland.

Finally, despite all the talk of Chinese and Korean interest in economic development in Nuuk, Greenland, of the ten existing foreign embassies there, nine are European and one Canadian. None are Asian -- at least not yet. Meanwhile, one Arctic state is increasing its presence in Greenland. The Icelandic Foreign Ministry has opened a Consulate General in Nuuk, Greenland, furthering North-North diplomacy.

The faces of Asia in the Arctic

In January 2012, Singapore appointed Kemal Siddique to serve as Arctic Ambassador, while Japan tapped Masuo Nishibayashi to the post in March. These are the only two Asian countries to have designated Arctic Ambassadors, epitomizing the two countries’ attempts to demonstrate commitment to the Arctic.

Arctic affairs are also high on the agenda for Asian ambassadors to the Arctic states. The new ambassador to Canada, Norihiro Okuda, stated on the topic of the Arctic, “We’ll have to have a very serious dialogue with our Canadian counterparts about what they want to do, and what contributions we can do.”

Arctic reciprocity towards Asia

It would be interesting to investigate whether political figures from the Arctic states are reciprocating Asian interest in their countries. One could examine the number of visits by each Arctic head of state or high-level figure to China, Japan and Korea, along with looking at the number of diplomatic offices each Arctic country has in Asia.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Japan and Korea during a high-profile tour of Asia, countries he has each visited twice before. Energy was one of the main topics discussed. Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir traveled to Beijing in April, in part to sign a free trade agreement. Perhaps speaking most clearly to the mutual interest in developing ties between Asia and the Arctic, Danish Foreign Minister Willy Søvndal, who himself visited China last November, remarked to the Shanghai Daily, “We see the visit of Yu Zhengsheng as an expression of China’s continued interest in strengthening bilateral ties and cooperation with Denmark -- an interest which is fully reciprocated.” When in Beijing in November, he affirmed, “My visit takes place shortly after a decisive and comprehensive change of leadership in China. It’s important that Denmark and Danish competencies at the highest level are visible in China. It makes a difference in a country like China, and it’s helping to pave the way for an increasingly comprehensive cooperation.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.