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Arctic Council has tightrope to walk in potential decision to admit China

Levon SevuntsEye on the Arctic

As Canada’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq prepares to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, she’ll have to learn to perform a difficult diplomatic pirouette, says a leading Canadian Arctic policy expert.

At issue is the upcoming vote at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013 on whether to give China, the European Union, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore permanent observer status at the Council.

Rob Huebert, the Associate Director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, says the trick for Canada would be to find a way to say ‘Yes’ to China, while saying ‘No’ to the EU.

Under the Arctic Council rules, the decision to admit a country or a non-state entity must be unanimous. But the eight permanent members of the Arctic Council have divergent views on whether China should be admitted into the Council as an observer state.

Norwegian Arctic policy expert Leiv Lunde, head of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute at the University of Oslo, said Russia is seen as more reticent in opening up the Arctic Council to non-Arctic states and non-state actors such as Greenpeace, which is also seeking observer status.

“The U.S. hasn’t made up its mind but it’s been moving towards more sort of open and comprehensive view what the Arctic Council should be,” said Lunde.

Scandinavian countries are the most open to admitting new members to the Arctic Council, Lunde said.

Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister and the current chair of the Arctic Council Carl Bildt and his Norwegian counterpart Espen Barth Eide made it clear that they welcome China’s admission to the Council, during a joint press conference in Tromso, Norway, earlier this week, Lunde said.

Seal ban to haunt EU?

While Canada has a lot to gain by admitting China into the Arctic Council, says Huebert, it also has an axe to grind against the EU for its ban on seal products.

Despite an Inuit exemption, the EU ban on trade in seal products has had a devastating effect on Inuit communities in the Canadian Arctic.

“Canada hasn’t been quite as open in its support but there has been nothing to suggest that Canadians are in fact opposed to the Chinese; probably they would be quite happy to see the Chinese on,” Huebert said. “The complicating factor for Canada of course is that it has strong views on the European Union’s effort to join as an observer because of the Europeans’ position on seal trade.”

Huebert said Canadian diplomats should be working behind the scenes to make sure that the issue of China’s observer status is resolved before Canada takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Sweden in May.

“This could be one of those issues that could completely derail any effort of Canada to further push on its agenda that it wanted to bring forward, which of course is a focus on the social, economic and health concerns of northern peoples,” Huebert said.

Aglukkaq, who was given the portfolio for the Arctic Council by Prime Minister Stephen Harper last year, says Canada hasn’t made a decision yet on which countries it will be supporting.

“Certainly that was raised by all the meetings that I’ve had,” Aglukkaq said, speaking Thursday after her return from a working trip to Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway.

“We are assessing all of the applicants against the criteria agreed to by Arctic Council Ministers, including the recognition of Arctic States' sovereignty by non‑Arctic states and demonstrated respect for the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants.”

Respecting indigenous communities

Aglukkaq said Canada also wants to make sure that the presence of new observers doesn’t dilute the voice of the indigenous communities, who have a permanent participant status at the Council.

Huebert said another complicating issue that Canada will have to work around has to do with Russia’s decision last November to suspend on legal technicality an umbrella group that represents Russia’s indigenous groups.

The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) has a permanent participant status at the Arctic Council along with five other indigenous associations: the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council and Sami Council.

“The big challenge that everyone is undoubtedly facing, and I doubt they are willing to talk about is then how do you deal with this broader question of who should be the observers when in fact Russia is turning around and saying one of the permanent participants should not be participating,” Huebert said.

Aglukkaq said she met a representative of RAIPON at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso earlier this week and was assured that the organization is working on bringing its charter into conformity with new Russian legislation governing NGO’s.

Beware rebuffing a dragon

Rebuffing China’s Arctic ambitions might come to haunt Arctic countries, Huebert warned.

It would deprive the Arctic countries from benefiting from the growing Chinese expertise and research of climate change in the Arctic, he said. But more importantly it could have serious political ramifications, Huebert said.

“If in fact you say ‘No’, history tells us that the Chinese do not take rejection very well or very lightly,” Huebert said. “And how will that then play into the overall Chinese psyche? What will that do for subsequent relations elsewhere? You know in other words, what is the spill over effect? And that probably is the more dangerous of the two impacts.”

Norwegian Arctic policy expert Lunde also agreed that rejecting China carries significant risks.

“I’m a bit afraid, for instance, that if China is continuously denied access, it will be more difficult for the responsible people in leadership to discipline all the players that might become more irresponsible in their attitudes towards Arctic cooperation,” Lunde said.

Huebert said China’s ambitions in the Arctic are driven by five factors.

“The first one, of course, is their interest in climate change,” Huebert said. “They recognized a long time ago that what happens in the Arctic will have an impact on their sea levels along their coast, the Western desert and etc.”

China wants to have a better scientific understanding of the processes that are occurring, he said.

The Chinese are also very aware of that their economic prosperity is driven by international trade. And since much of that international trade is ship-born, anything that might be a new navigational route, be it through the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage, is also in the long-term interests of China, Huebert said.

The third aspect that drives Chinese interest in the Arctic is their growing need for new energy sources, he said.

“They’re not looking per se to developing their own oil companies in the Arctic region,” Huebert said, “they know these are within national jurisdictions of the various Arctic states, but they want to be a participant. As much as the market will allow they want buy into these companies. They want to play within the rules but they want to be a major economic player.”

And as one of the most powerful global entities there are, China wants to have a say in the governance of any international region within the international system, Huebert said.

“The fifth reason, they don’t officially say this, but we’re starting to see signs of their thinking about it very, very consistently, is of course the growing recognition that the Arctic is going to become an increasingly important geopolitical environment,” Huebert said.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.