Published daily by the Lowy Institute

China and the Arctic: What's the fuss?

China and the Arctic: What's the fuss?

For a few hours this evening Australian time, media outlets from around the world will zoom in on Kiruna, Sweden's northernmost city of 18,000 inhabitants and host to the Arctic Council ministerial meeting. The foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council member states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the US – will attend the two-hour meeting, held every other year.

It is a sign of the times that the most controversial issue on the agenda will be whether China will be granted permanent observer status.

China, along with six other countries and seven organisations also vying to become permanent observers, wants to ensure that it will receive an invitation to Arctic Council meetings in future. That is the only concrete benefit permanent observers have compared to ad hoc observers. Observers do not have voting rights nor are they allowed to address the ministerial meeting.

At the last two ministerial meetings a decision about accepting new permanent observers has been postponed due to a lack of consensus among member states. Why? No official wants to say it publicly, but unofficially Arctic watchers know that it is because Russia is wary of allowing China in to one of the last forums at which Russia is not overshadowed by its former 'little brother'.

Another complication is that Canada does not want the European Union, another permanent observer applicant, to be allowed in because of their differing stances on seal hunting. [fold]

The Council meets behind closed doors and formal decisions are made through consensus. No voting takes place. Sticky issues like that of China's role are discussed in smaller groups of diplomats and ministers. China, an ad hoc observer since 2009, has lobbied hard to win support for its application. All five Nordic countries have publicly endorsed Beijing's application. Where Washington stands on the issue of permanent observers is unclear.

As a major power, China views as natural its participation in discussions about future Arctic governance structures. Chinese scholars have started to refer to China as a 'near-Arctic state' and an 'Arctic stakeholder' in an effort to emphasise that the melting ice will have a profound effect on countries that are not Arctic states. The effects of global warming on the Arctic environment will indeed affect agriculture in countries like China and potentially transform global shipping routes.

Then there are the energy and mineral resources under the Arctic seabed. Widely varying estimates of these deposits abound, as do exaggerated predictions of their accessibility. The identifiable resources are located within state borders or the universally agreed upon 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the coastal states and thus not subject to dispute.

Only some years ago few people had ever even heard of the Arctic Council. It is not a formal international organisation with a firm legal charter. Rather, it is an intergovernmental forum, established in 1996, to enhance cooperation on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous peoples. To date, the Arctic Council has agreed on one binding accord, on search and rescue. Another one is expected to be announced in Kiruna.

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.

Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

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