Japan, Other G7 Members Look to Strengthen Polar Observation

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan and other Group of Seven industrialized countries (G7) are working on a policy to strengthen ocean observation near the North and South Poles. The plan is expected to be outlined in a joint statement to be issued at a meeting of G7 science and technology ministers in Sendai in May, according to government sources.

G7 member countries will work together to monitor meteorological conditions and other phenomena, particularly in the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice is shrinking due to global warming.

The cooperative international project is also aimed at countering Russia and China, both of which have upped maritime activities in the Arctic Ocean, an area with increasing strategic importance. If realized, it would be the first time for the G7 to issue a policy relating to a polar region.

Due to the impact of global warming, Arctic sea ice has shrunk by about one-third over the past 35 years, impacting weather and ecosystems around the world. However, observers say there has been a dearth of observational data.

Presently, Japan has no direct means of directly surveying icy seas. However, an under-construction icebreaker, “Arctic Research Vessel,” is slated to begin operations in fiscal 2026.

The ship will be capable of operating in the Arctic Ocean, except during the coldest period of winter. In addition to weather-observation activities, the vessel will research the seabed’s topography and biological resources and gather sediment samples.

The government plans to lead the research project by sharing its data with other countries.

Time-saving route

As Arctic sea ice continues to melt, Arctic Ocean sea routes are becoming increasingly important — a fact that has further galvanized the government. Many Japanese ships link with Europe via a southern route that passes through the Suez Canal. If a northern sea passage were to be used, this sailing distance could be cut by about 40% and would have a strong bearing on transportation costs.

Meanwhile, China and Russia have been ramping up activities in the Arctic region, apparently with an eye on gaining a stake in the region’s rich natural resources and possibly establishing a route across northern Russia and the Arctic Ocean.

Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is tasked with defending the country’s Arctic region, was upgraded to a “military district” in 2021 and carries out military drills and environmental surveys under Moscow’s auspices.

China reportedly views a potential Arctic Ocean passage as an “Ice Silk Road,” and is keen to establish a new sea route and gather resources.

The Defense Ministry’s “Response Strategy on Climate Change,” compiled last August, flags China’s possible advance into the Arctic Ocean via the Sea of Japan, which could negatively impact Japan’s national security.

Use of Arctic sea areas is presently unregulated, unlike the northern Antarctica region, which is regulated by the Antarctic Treaty that stipulates Antarctica should be used for peaceful purposes only.

Observers say international rules are necessary to prevent Arctic resources from being corralled, and to put a check on the emergence of military tensions in the area.

The Japanese government intends to take the lead in related discussions at the G7 meetings and play a part in drawing up international rules, in addition to measures to cope with global warming.

The G7 meeting of ministers of science and technology will be held on May 12-14, with Sanae Takaichi, minister of state for science and technology policy, slated to attend.