Arctic Council Approves China as Observer [Updated]

Wednesday is expected [see update below] to see a decision by the eight member states of the Arctic Council on China’s third bid for observer status. Japan, South Korea, India, the E.U., Greenpeace and others have also applied to join the twenty organizations and six nations—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom— already admitted as observers. From Alistair Macdonald and Ellen Emmerentze Jervell at The Wall Street Journal:

The Arctic Council, a once-obscure regional forum that had little to show for itself, has nations queuing to participate, as melting ice makes shipping, tourism and resource extraction a reality in the nebulously delineated region.

Among the 14 countries and organizations seeking so-called observer status at a meeting this week in Kiruna, northern Sweden, will be China, whose increased interest in the Arctic underscores the region’s re-emergence as an area of potential geopolitical intrigue.

The council’s eight permanent members—the U.S., Canada, Russia and five Nordic nations—must agree to admit the new observers. The Nordic nations, which have been courted aggressively by China, say they will. Canada has expressed reservations on expansion. It is unclear whether the U.S., which is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Sweden, and Russia will agree, as they wake up to the increased economic, and perhaps military, potential of the vast stretches of Arctic territory within and north of their borders. [Source]

At Caixin, Martin Breum explained the murky positions of the various Council member states, and fears that failure to admit China might ultimately render the Council irrelevant:

Over recent years […] persistent reports have clarified that Russia has been actively blocking China’s bid for enhanced status. Russia fears, among other factors, that China will try to influence the drawing of borders in the Arctic Ocean, where it is still not clear which states own what.

But others may also feel reluctant to let China in. High politics in the Arctic is a relatively new game and the AC member states still struggle to balance power between themselves and between themselves and the native peoples of the region. While the Nordic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland – are all explicitly in favor of China’s wish for a seat at the table, the positions of the United States and Canada are less advertised.

Among the Nordic countries the worry has been for years that China would eventually take the entire discussion of the Arctic’s future to other forums – most likely the United Nations – if it was denied influence in the AC. A UN discussion on everything from polar bears, oil and fisheries to environmental protection and the rights of ethnic minorities could threaten the Arctic countries’ privileged access to the riches in the region and their ability to design for themselves the development of the Arctic societies. [Source]

Bloomberg’s Isabel Reynolds surveyed the economic stakes, and gave more details on the arguments for and against admitting China and the others, including the shadow cast by disputes in the South and East China Seas:

Having cultivated ties with Nordic nations and exploration deals with Russia, China has sparked concern partly because of its “perceived belligerence” in maritime territorial claims, [the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Toronto’s James] Manicom said in a report published last month.

[… But] Arctic nations would benefit by admitting East Asian countries as observers, who don’t have voting rights, [the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney’s Linda] Jakobson and Manicom said.

“It’s much better to engage with them and know what they’re doing in the Arctic than keep them out,” Jakobson said. “No one’s giving up any power by letting them in.” [Source]

Jakobson elaborated at the Lowy Interpreter, while wondering what exactly all the fuss is about:

The hype about China’s permanent observer bid is far-fetched. It’s not as if the Arctic Council has far-flung powers. Swedish Arctic Ambassador Gustaf Lind’s comment at a gathering of Arctic experts last November is telling: one of the achievements of the Sweden’s two-year Arctic Council chairmanship has been to ensure that document pages are now numbered.

The hype reflects two anxieties. Or, to quote Dr Kristian Kristensen of the University of Copenhagen, twin fears are feeding each other. China evokes anxiety because no one knows what kind of power China will evolve into over the coming decades. And there is uncertainty and anxiety about the consequences of the melting Arctic ice.

Rejecting China’s desire to participate as an observer in discussions pertaining to the Arctic future is not a sensible approach. As I have argued, Arctic Council member states can both protect their own interests and support permanent observer status for China and others. By backing China’s application, Arctic Council members would give up little in the way of direct influence on Arctic matters, while benefiting from substantial discussions with Beijing to better understand its Arctic intentions. Furthermore, engaging China more deeply in Arctic Council activities will encourage Beijing to pay serious attention to legitimate environmental concerns pertaining to shipping and possible resource exploration in the fragile Arctic environment. [Source]

See also ‘Why China oh-so-desperately wants a claim to the Arctic Ocean‘ by Gwynn Guilford at Quartz, and more on China in the Arctic via CDT.

Updated at 8:40 a.m. PST on May 15th: The Arctic Council approved China’s application, as well as those of India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. From Matt McGrath at the BBC:

The meeting in Kiruna, Sweden also agreed on a new manual that will govern the activities and roles of the observers. They will not be able to directly raise issues but will have to bring them forward through one of the eight core members.

But the Council was unable to agree on the application from the European Union. It is believed that Canada, which has now assumed the chairmanship of the Council was strongly opposed to the EU getting a permanent observer seat.

There have been ongoing disputes between the two over an EU ban on seal fur and other products. The EU is also poised to restrict imports of oil produced in the Alberta tar sands.

At CBC, meanwhile, Daniel Schwartz listed issues from ocean acidification to food chain contamination that would be priorities for the Arctic Council over the two years of Canada’s chairmanship and beyond.


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