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Race for the Arctic

Irene QuaileMay 16, 2013

The Arctic Council has accepted China and other Asian states as permanent observers. With climate change making the region more accessible to shipping and commercial exploitation, countries are lining up to join.

Ships between icebergs, Spitsbergen, Norway
Image: DW/I. Quaile

Asian countries China, India, Japan,South Korea and Singapore have been granted permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, which coordinates research and development activities in the far North. Canada, Iceland, Norway, Russia, the USA and EU members Denmark, Finland and Sweden are currently members, while six indigenous groups are permanent participants. An application from the EU was blocked by Canada. Although numerous EU countries are already represented in the forum as members or observers, the EU is seeking permanent observer status for itself as a bloc.

The EU is a key player in the Arctic, Steffen Weber, secretary general of the independent think tank "EU-ARCTIC-Forum told DW ahead of the meeting. He said that the bloc supports extensive research and cooperation programs. Its economic interests also justify the status, Weber says, as the EU gets a large share of its gas, raw materials and fish supplies from Arctic areas.

However, relations between the EU and the Arctic Council are far from cordial.

The EU banned the import of seal products in 2009. That is problematic, Weber says, as it curtails the livelihood of indigenous peoples. It is an issue of key importance to Canada, which is about to take over the chairmanship of the council from Sweden. It's also prompted indigenous groups to circulate a petition urging the government to keep the EU out unless the ban is repealed.

Seals by the North Sea
The EU has banned the import of seal productsImage: DW/I.Quaile-Kersken

At the same time Canada is negotiating an important trade agreement with the EU, which could now meet problems, following Canada's blocking of the EU application at the Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, on May 15.

Canada's Arctic minister has said its two-year council chairmanship will focus on "developing the North for the people of the North."

That could bode well for northern communities, especially in Canada, where many suffer from high unemployment.

Even so, journalist Eilis Quinn of Radio Canada International's Eye on the Arctic portal says the topic that comes up most in the North is how climate change and melting ice are affecting everyday life.

"A huge proportion of the Inuit living in the Canadian Arctic still rely on hunting for food, not only for their own families but to share in the communities," she told DW. "This is something a lot of experts in Canada are looking at and wondering why it is not higher on the agenda."

Melting ice is opening new shipping routes from Asia to Europe and America DW-Grafik: Peter Steinmetz
Melting ice is opening new shipping routes between Asia and Europe and America

China makes its presence felt

Asian countries' desire for a greater role in the Arctic - especially China's - has drawn international media attention in recent months. Yet, that interest appears to have more to do with political preconceptions than with hard facts, according to political analyst Mika Mered of Polariis consulting in Washington.

"China, India, Japan, South Korea or Singapore are legitimate observers at the Arctic Council. Their whole economic model in the 21st century will rely on the security of the maritime routes through the Arctic that give them the possibility to transport the goods they produce. "

The US authorities have a different view though, says Mered.

"If you're an American strategist today, you are afraid of China as much as you used to be of Russia 20 years ago. That is the real issue around the Chinese application to the Arctic Council. What we're seeing is that the Arctic in the 21st century will be the center of the world. Not Central Asia, not the Middle East," he says while adding, "If you control the Arctic, you control the world."

From the US perspective, the unexpectedly rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice is changing the area from an icy, inaccessible northern border to an increasingly navigable sea. This gives it new geostrategic significance, which is echoed in the Arctic strategy recently drafted by the US and the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry was in Sweden for the Arctic Council meeting.

How important is the Arctic Council?

China does not need the council to secure its interests in the region, Mered says. The key issue of a "Polar Code" for shipping, for example, is being negotiated under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization.

The undated photo shows a member of China's third Arctic expedition helping drag the underwater robot "Arctic ARV" out of the Arctic Ocean
China is active in the ArcticImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Furthermore, China and the other Asian candidates have gained permanent observer status not membership of the council, which does not afford them voting rights, Steffen Weber points out.

"Alongside this diplomatic status, there is also a de facto status, depending on the degree of a country's involvement in the region," he says. "How many research ships or ice breakers does it have up there? To what extent are companies from a particular state involved?"

With China planning to operate mines in Greenland or acquire port capacity in Iceland, Beijing already influences what happens in the region. The same applies to other non-Arctic countries, says Weber.

Competing Arctic clubs?

In addition, the Arctic Council may soon see other company tackling a similar agenda. Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson recently announced the creation of an "Arctic Circle," to be open to all interested countries and organizations.

It could be a game-changer, says geostrategy expert Mered. He's hopeful that it will encourage Canada to adopt a more inclusive attitude to Arctic governance during its council presidency.

The Arctic Council headquarters in Tromsö, Norway
The Arctic Council opened its permanent headquarters in Tromsö, Norway this yearImage: DW

But the new grouping needn't be seen as a rival to the Arctic Council.

"If the Arctic changes to the extent the researchers are predicting, we will be facing huge problems and opportunities, which we can only tackle in cooperation between different bodies," says Steffen Weber.

Meanwhile, he cites the first search and rescue agreement concluded by the Arctic Council and an oil spill agreement adopted at the Kiruna meeting as evidence that it is serious about tackling Arctic issues - and as indicators of the path it is set to follow.