The Arctic Council, which coordinates policy in the region, has admitted China and other Asian nations as observers. New trade routes and oil and gas exploration are some of the incentives.
The semi-annual meeting of the Arctic Council took place in Kiruna, Sweden on Wednesday. It is the first time Asian countries have been granted observer status.
Created in 1996, the Council includes the eight Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. They all agreed to grant the special status to China, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore and Italy.
"There is no such thing as a free lunch," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide. "By becoming an observer you're also signing up to the principles embodied by this organization, and that is why we have been working hard to make that happen."
The Council has acted as a watchdog for the rights of the region's indigenous people and protector of its fragile ecosystem.
A decision on whether to grant the European Union observer status was deferred. The EU has an unresolved dispute with Canada over its trade in seal products.
Observer status gives countries the right to listen in on Council meetings and propose and finance policies.
"Despite the varied interests we have heard today from the permanent participants, there is nothing that should unite us quite like our concern for both the promise and challenges of the northernmost reaches of the Earth," US Secretary of State John Kerry told the meeting.
The Arctic Council is likely to become increasingly important in the coming years as the planet's far north is believed to be rich in natural resources. Officials estimate the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits. Thawing ice in the area opens up a new waterway to commercial shipping traffic.
China has been active in the region for some time. It has become one of the biggest investors in mining in Greenland and has agreed a free trade accord with Iceland. Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save Chinese companies time and money.
jm/jlw (Reuters, AP)