China set to become observer to Arctic Council

By Liu Zhonghua in Kiruna and Yang Jingjie in Beijing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-16 1:03:01

China on Wednesday welcomed the Arctic Council's decision to grant it observer status on the panel, despite earlier concerns that Canada and Russia would block its bid.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in a statement that the council's decision would help China reinforce exchanges and cooperation on Arctic affairs with related parties, contribute to the council's work, and promote peace, stability and sustainable development in the region.

At its biennial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, the Arctic Council, which groups the five Nordic countries, Russia, Canada and the US, earlier on Wednesday gave China, South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore and Italy observer status, while granting the EU tentative observer status.

"China has always supported the council's aims, recognizes Arctic states' sovereignty over the Arctic region, their sovereign and administrative rights as well as their leading role in the council. We respect the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other residents there," Hong said.

The approval of observer status came as a surprise for Chinese analysts, as it needs a unanimous decision among member states. While the Nordic countries supported China's bid, Canada and Russia had expressed concerns over the opening up of the council, and the US said it was undecided.

Cheng Baozhi, a researcher with the Center for Ocean and Polar Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the Global Times it was a result of diplomatic efforts, and that China's growing economic clout and its scientific engagement in the Arctic also served as a catalyst for the result.

According to data from the Shanghai-based Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC), China's trade with the Arctic region increased tenfold to nearly $1.9 billion from 2001 to 2011.

Gao Feng, head of the Chinese delegation to the meeting, told the Global Times it would cause lots of problems if Asia's leading economies China, Japan and South Korea were excluded from Arctic affairs, and their involvement in the council would lead to increased investment and greater contribution to the region.

Damien Degeorges, founder of the Arctic Policy and Economic Forum, told the Global Times that by having big powers like China and India become observers, the council now could cover all the important stakeholders of Arctic affairs and significantly lift its global clout.

But experts noted that the importance of observer status shouldn't be overstated, as it only allows China to attend meetings of the council and propose projects instead of making decisions.

"In fact, there are more important platforms for China to take part in Arctic affairs, such as the International Maritime Organization, which makes legally binding codes on shipping in the Arctic region," said Cheng.

The rich fishing and mineral resources in the Arctic region and the new sea routes opening up as a result of global warming have made the Arctic a new frontier for geopolitical struggles.

According to a US scientific study in 2008, over one-fifth of the world's undiscovered natural gas and oil deposits are above the Arctic circle.

The Obama administration last Friday unveiled its new Arctic strategy vowing to advance its security interests.

Gao said China would carry out sustainable development in the fishery, energy and mineral resources in the region.

Zhang Xia, head of the Strategic Research Department at the PRIC, named the scientific studies on global warming and new shipping lanes as China's most important interests in the Arctic.

Zhang said melting ice in the polar region will provide alternatives to the shipping of goods between China and Northern and Western Europe as well as the East Coast of North America, which rose to over 20 million containers in 2011.

Posted in: Diplomacy

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