China was granted observer status by the Arctic Council, giving the world’s second-largest economy more influence amid an intensifying search for resources in the globe’s most northern region.
The eight-member council at a summit today in Kiruna, Sweden, also granted observer status to Japan, India, Italy, Singapore, and the Republic of Korea. The European Union application was deferred until members are satisfied that issues of concern -- largely Canadian objections about EU restrictions on seal products -- have been allayed.
“The symbolic importance for China shouldn’t be understated,” said Malte Humpert, executive director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington policy group. “China has identified the Arctic as a strategically and geopolitically valuable region,” and “having a seat at the table, albeit only as a permanent observer, has long been an essential part of the country’s regional strategy.”
The number of new observers reflects interest in the region’s burgeoning economic opportunities as climate change alters the physical landscape. Rapidly melting ice is opening new shipping routes that will make the trip from Europe to Asia shorter and cheaper during the summer months. The softening of Arctic ice could also bring within reach the 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil that lie under the Arctic Ocean floor, according to the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
As Arctic ice melt has increased the region’s economic potential, the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, has been evolving from a diplomatic forum into a “decision-making body,” according to the Council’s outgoing chairman, Sweden’s Arctic Ambassador Gustav Lind.
That has boosted interest on the part of many countries in becoming an observer. It also made the council’s consensus decision about which countries can join the current observers -- France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Poland -- a closely watched piece of business.
Giving China enhanced status undermines the council’s own emphasis on democracy, respect for indigenous people and civil society, according to critics such as Ellen Bork of the Washington-based Foreign Policy Institute.
Long engaged in scientific research in the Arctic, China in recent years signed its first European trade pact with Iceland and built that country’s largest embassy. Former Premier Wen Jiabao started his European tour last year in Iceland.
China and its companies are investing in Russian Arctic oil ventures and mining in Greenland. Its Snow Dragon ice breaker took an 85-day voyage across the northern route last year, the first time in history a Chinese vessel crossed the Arctic Ocean. This summer, a Chinese shipping firm plans to make the country’s first commercial voyage through the Arctic Ocean to Europe and the U.S.
“The Arctic is another Africa for China,” Humpert said in an interview, referring to China’s investment in Africa for its natural resources. “With minimal investment, they can be in a position, twenty, thirty, fifty years down the road, to yield a big return and have a controlling influence.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that admitting six news observers “demonstrates the broad international acceptance of the role of the Arctic Council, because by being observer, these organizations and states, they accept the principles and the sovereignty of the Arctic Council on Arctic issues.”
Bork, director of Human Rights at the institute, had urged China’s application to be turned down because it doesn’t reflect council values. Those values, as described by a U.S. administration official, include respect for sovereignty, a willingness to abide by existing legal frameworks, particularly the UN Law of the Sea, and respect for indigenous peoples of the region. The official wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
Beijing’s track record in Tibet, where “policies of repression, environmental degradation, and the influx of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet” reveal little respect for indigenous people, Bork said.
China also aggressively contests its neighbors’ claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Last week, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, suggested China might own Okinawa, a major Japanese island home to 1.3 million people.
“Clearly this behavior falls short of the respect for other states’ sovereignty required of observers,” Bork said.
With China and other countries preparing to increase shipping through the Arctic Ocean, a body of water roughly the size of Russia, Council members -- Russia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, the U.S. and Canada, plus indigenous groups -- today signed a treaty on oil-spill preparedness to set out shared responsibilities in the event of a disaster.
“We have to be prepared for surprises, and we need to increase the capacity to adapt and to grapple with conflicting priorities,” said Annika E. Nilsson, the scientific coordinator on a study of the resilience of the Arctic’s environment and communities that was released today.
The study found that “Arctic sea ice is melting faster than global models predict,” said Sarah Cornell, lead author of threshold analysis on the study by the University of Stockholm and the Stockholm Environment Institute.
As part of its effort to consider the environment, the council also considered assessments on biodiversity, ocean acidification and an ocean review. It reaffirmed its intent to improve economic and social conditions for the region’s native peoples, to act on climate change and protect the environment.
Last summer, the amount of ice covering the Arctic Ocean had shrunk by half compared with average measurements from 1980 to 2000, according to the Arctic Institute. The thickness of the remaining ice had dwindled by 80 percent. Within three to five years, the Arctic Ocean, a body of water roughly the size of Russia, could be ice-free in the summer, according to a White House estimate.
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