Arctic Council looks beyond icy circle

By Cheng Baozhi Source:Global Times Published: 2013-5-21 20:23:01

The Arctic Council granted six countries including China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore permanent observer status at its eighth ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden on May 15.

The Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses Arctic affairs, was founded in 1996. It's not comparable with global organizations like the UN or the WTO in popularity or fame on the international political stage.

However, ice melting caused by global warming makes abundant supplies of oil, gas and minerals in the region accessible, and opens up new possible shipping routes, stimulating national growth, transnational corporations, and environmental NGOs for influence and economic opportunities.

The inclusion of six permanent observers suggests that the Arctic nations have recognized that issues like climate change, ecological protection, usage of shipping routes and resource development in the Arctic region can no longer be reserved to a small group of Arctic countries.

They have acknowledged that Arctic governance in the future should be more inclusive and open, creating more room for non-Arctic countries to participate. This is a quite laudable move.

However, some possible bottlenecks that may confine the Arctic Council were also shown in the Kiruna meeting. One urgent problem is how to achieve sound interaction between observers and the eight Arctic countries and thus enable the observers to play a constructive role.

The meeting issued a new manual that will govern the activities and roles of the observers. They are only allowed to participate in subordinate bodies of the Arctic Council such as the working groups, task forces and expert groups, and their position will be terminated if they conduct activities in violation of the tenets of the Arctic Council.

The stipulation that observers only have limited rights in the council may frustrate their enthusiasm to provide public goods like capital and technology for Arctic governance.

Another problem is the EU and Greenland's relationships with the Arctic Council.

The EU has still to wait for observer status due to a seal hunting dispute with Canada. Greenland boycotted the Arctic Council meeting after Sweden refused its demand for a voting seat.

Canada, which has just assumed the chair of the Arctic Council, needs to solve these issues during its term, otherwise, the development of the council will be adversely affected.

The US will chair the Arctic Council in 2015. On May 10, US President Barack Obama announced the US National Strategy for the Arctic Region, declaring high-profile goals: "advance US Security Interests, pursue responsible Arctic region stewardship and strengthen international cooperation." It also states that the US "will work toward US accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

This is clearly a North American period for the Arctic Council. Some Canadian scholars advocate joint efforts by the US and Canada to speed up the institutionalization of the council, building it into a real international organization.

However, whether the shift from an intergovernmental forum to an international organization can be realized depends on the political will and coordination of the eight Arctic countries, especially the US, Canada and Russia. There is still a long way to go. 

The author is a research fellow with the Center for Ocean and Polar Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus