November 9, 2013
Malaysia needs a comprehensive Polar policy
by BA Hamzah
Climate change and global warming has become an immutable part of our life. Our earth is rarely warm, humid, stormy and wet as it is today. For many, the weather has been unkindly punishing especially at sea and for those living by the coast and along riverbanks.
One significant impact of global warming is the rapid melting of the Arctic ice sheet. Once free of the ice sheet, the maritime Polar Route (PR) is open 24/7 to navigation. The PR will become the preferred alternative shipping route to the current strategic waterways like the Suez Canal, Panama Canal and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore for ships from Europe to East Asia and vice versa.
The Polar Route, especially the Northern Sea Route (NSR), will transform the global structure for seaborne trade with geopolitical implications that Malaysia can only ignore at its own peril.
The NSR will hug the Siberian coastline as it approaches the Kamchatka Peninsula before turning to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and southern part of China. Apart from Russia, benefiting most from the opening of the Arctic Routes are trading giants like Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea. The Polar Route will also benefit India and Southeast Asian countries, the Nordic states including Permanent members of the Arctic Council.
Bypassing the Suez Canal and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the Polar Route can cut sailing times by 12-15 days from the current sailing times. According to the Financial Times, “a ship travelling at 21 knots between Rotterdam and Yokohama takes 29 days if it goes via the Cape of Good Hope, 22 days via the Suez Canal and just 15 days if it goes across the Arctic Ocean.”
Besides, free of pirates the route is safer. Insurance charges will also be more attractive. Translated into dollars and cents, the saving could be considerable. For example, in 1992 a study showed that the Japanese shipping industry could save up to US $ 1 billion annually by going through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, based on a saving of 3 ½ days.
Besides being shorter, the Polar Route are easily navigable. The new generation container ships may not meet the 3.5 metre Under Keel Clearance (UKC) in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore and too large to pass through the Suez and Panama Canals.
Two weeks ago, a Chinese- flagged vessel sailed from Dalian to Rotterdam via the NSR. The 3,800-mile journey days, is quicker by fifteen days. Yong Seng was not the first to test the waters; two years ago, some forty- six vessels flying different flags have successfully plied the same route.
Most pundits agree that the PR will raise the international profile of Russia globally. An ice- free NSR will also expedite the opening of Siberia, rich in hydrocarbon resources and other strategic minerals. This will further boost the economic standing of nuclear- armed Russia seeking to redeem itself following the disastrous Cold War era (1945-1989).
Barring unforeseen circumstance, the current strategic alignment between China and Russia should remain intact. This stable relationship will greatly reinforce the political-strategic stature of China as an emerging global maritime power. For China, the Polar Route provides the much-needed additional access route for its brown- water Navy and merchant marine. In geo-strategic terms, with the additional access route, it becomes more daunting for any power to contain China militarily.
Driving the Arctic dynamics is geopolitics. This explains why some Asian countries like India, China, South Korea and Singapore are exerting themselves to become members of the Arctic Council.
To benefit fully from the opening of the Polar Route, Malaysia too needs to design a comprehensive polar policy. One that encompasses all aspects, including rethinking over new routes for international trade, developing new ports, the status of the Straits of Malacca as a sea-lane of communication, its pollution and other environmental security concerns as well as the larger geostrategic concerns arising from the new Polar dynamics.
Joining the Arctic Council will be a wise move. There is already precedence: in 2011, Malaysia acceded to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty for scientific research purposes. With slight changes, the existing domestic legislation (including the proposed Bill on Antarctica) could be used for the Arctic. An excellent opportunity to steer Malaysia into the new mainstream of international trade would be missed should policy planners continue to procrastinate.