HONG KONG — As rising temperatures melt ice caps and uncover previously inaccessible natural resources and sea routes, the Arctic has caught the attention of countries near and far — including the world’s second-biggest economic power, China.
At the center of the action is the Arctic Council, the most important intergovernmental organization in the region. Now, China is seeking to become a permanent observer.
“China wants a larger say in the council, which is the only organization which sets the agenda for Arctic affairs,” said Chen Gang, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
Formed in 1996, the council comprises the eight countries with territory inside the Arctic Circle: Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland. Discussions on everything from sustainable development to environmental protection in the region take place here.
To understand the lure of the north and a place at the council, consider this: The US Geological Survey estimates that of the world's undiscovered fossil fuels, 13 percent of the oil and 30 percent of the natural gas are north of the Arctic Circle. Rising temperatures could mean the Arctic could be navigable several months of the year via shipping routes that are thousands of miles shorter than ones now used. The region also holds fragile ecosystems and its ice helps regulate global temperatures.
Linda Jakobson, director of the East Asia program at Sydney think-tank Lowy Institute, said that while the Arctic remained a peripheral issue for China, the country’s interest had grown in the past five years because of the shorter shipping routes and natural resource potential.
“China understands it does not want to be excluded,” said Jakobson, also a member of the Arctic research team at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “It does not want to be kept outside of any institution which will govern the Arctic.”
While permanent observers cannot vote, they can be part of the council’s processes, propose projects through members and, with permission, make statements and present views in its subsidiary bodies. If China succeeds, it could influence the dialgoue on the region, where a lot is at stake economically and environmentally.
Members will decide on permanent observer applications in May 2013. China, which in the past has been an ad-hoc observer, is not the only country seeking the status. South Korea, Japan and other countries are also in the running.
China has wasted no efforts in wooing the Arctic countries, offering investment deals and promises of collaboration in sustainable development and renewable energy.
Earlier this year, President Hu Jintao visited Denmark, the first time a Chinese head of state has done so. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went to Iceland and Sweden in the first visits by a Chinese premier in decades. Guo said China’s bilateral diplomacy has helped garner support from the Arctic states.
Economically, China's presence has grown in Alaska where last year it became the leading importer of seafood, surpassing Japan.
Beijing has also devoted significant resources to researching the Arctic climate, environment and ecosystem. Since 1984, China has conducted 31 polar expeditions, on which it invites foreign scientists, and built three research stations. It has put 1.25 billion yuan, or $200 million, into a second icebreaker, which will be operational in 2014.
Chen thinks Beijing stands a 50-50 chance of gaining observer status. “It might encounter some diplomatic struggles with the US and Russia, but the Scandinavian countries hold an open attitude toward China. Generally speaking, they want China to sit in the Arctic Council as a permanent observer.”
Chen Xulong, director of the department for international and strategic studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said there was “no question” the country was qualified to gain the status. “The question is whether the members can agree,” he said.
Hjálmar Hannesson, Iceland’s senior arctic official, said his country was “generally in favor” of admitting applicants, including China, as permanent observers, provided they fulfilled criteria that council ministers had adopted in Nuuk, Greenland, last year.
Klavs Holm, Denmark’s senior Arctic official, said his country supported applicants that “lived up to” the criteria and hoped that a “positive decision” could be made at the 2013 meeting.
One concern is Norway. In 2010, after the Norwegian Nobel committee — whose five members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament — made Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo a laureate, political dialogue between the countries came to a halt. In January this year, diplomatic source told a Norweigian newspaper that the lack of dialogue had made it hard for Norway to agree to China’s bid.
But in June, Svein Michelsen, a spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Norway was “ready to support China’s inclusion as an observer.” “This is our long-standing position,” he said.
Svein stressed the importance of a close dialogue between applicant and member states and said that currently there was “no high-level political dialogue” between the countries. “Norway regrets this,” Michelsen said. “But we stand ready to re-engage with China, which we believe is in the mutual interest of Norway and China.”
At the moment, nothing is certain. “It remains to be seen what the Arctic Council will do with all the observer applications,” Jakobson said. “I don’t think they will treat any country differently. They will either all be denied or all accepted.”