Singapore needs to act now to mitigate threats, tap opportunities along Northern Sea Route: Sam Tan

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan with panel moderator Stephen Sackur during the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, on Jan 28, 2020. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

TROMSO - The year-round opening of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic is only a matter of time, and Singapore has to race to be cheaper, faster and better than it already is to safeguard its status as a shipping hub.

This was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sam Tan's sentiment regarding the commercial viability of the new passageway, which will provide an alternative route for ships getting from Europe to ports such as those in South Korea, Japan and China's in East Asia.

The route is expected to cut down travelling time by 30 per cent, compared with the conventional Suez Canal-Malacca Strait route.

Currently, the Northern Sea Route is open for only a few months during the Northern Hemisphere summer, but a decrease in sea ice cover in the Arctic due to rising temperatures might make it a viable option in winter in the coming years as well.

The opening of a year-round Arctic shortcut will inevitably reduce the number of ships that pass through Singapore's port - which stands at more than 130,000 every year.

Mr Tan said that in the initial period, the route would likely be used for transporting oil and gas and other energy sources for countries such as Russia, China and Japan.

"It's still not an open sea yet, so there may be some constraints. Other commercial uses might come later."

Mr Tan said that while it would be difficult to predict the developments that might take place over the next two decades, there is a need to take action now.

"We cannot wait till things become clearer before we start doing something. That will be too late."

To guard Singapore's commercial interest and economic growth in light of such developments, the city-state must strive to be the maritime hub for the South-east Asian region, said Mr Tan.

He cited the construction of the Tuas mega port - which will employ the use of artificial intelligence and automation to increase efficiency when complete in 2040 - as one of Singapore's strategies to remain competitive in South-east Asia, where shipping activity will still be high because of its growing population of more than 650 million.

Ships from countries such as Australia and certain coastal provinces in China are also still likely to use Singapore's port, he added.

Apart from challenges, the Northern Sea Route could also present Singapore with opportunities. Mr Tan pointed out that companies here could be involved in infrastructural projects relating to the opening of the passageway, such as building icebreakers and equipment needed for the extraction of oil and gas in the Arctic region.

Sembcorp Marine, for instance, is currently constructing a 295m-long oil production and storage vessel bound for the Barents Sea. The Johan Castberg is slated to be completed in a few months' time.

Mr Tan is also confident that Singapore will be able to lend its expertise when new ports are developed along the Northern Sea Route to cater to the increasing shipping volume in the area.

"We are reputed to be one of the best port developers and port managers in the world. We have strong credentials and expertise in port management, building and construction.

"I see a lot of opportunities up north that will help us to open up new economic frontiers for our companies."

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