Jan. 20 – Despite harsh weather conditions, the Arctic is becoming a global hot spot, with non-Arctic countries like China, India and Brazil pursuing “observer” status on the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental body promoting cooperation and environmental protection among countries that have territories in the Arctic area.
Experts believe that the increasing focus in the Arctic is drawn by its abundant natural resources, which will be extracted in the future if the region’s environmental conditions become friendlier and global warming melts more glaciers and sea-ice.
The United States Geological Survey, a scientific agency of the U.S. government, conducted an extensive study into the region in 2008. The agency predicted that the Arctic has an estimated 90 billion barrels of the world’s undiscovered oil resources and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas reserves.
The Arctic Council consists of eight permanent members: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, the United States. There are also six permanent participants representing the Arctic’s indigenous groups: Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Saami Council. In addition, the council has six non-Arctic countries as observers, namely the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.
Seeing the change in the Arctic environment, non-Arctic countries including China, India, Brazil, Japan and South Korea have revealed a keen interest in having seats as observers. However, members of the Arctic Council seem to share different views on whether to expand the number of non-Arctic states in the council.
Canada and Russia appeared to be the most reluctant towards bringing in more non-Arctic countries as observers, while Norway, Finland and Denmark consider it necessary to further expand the scope of the council. At the same time, the council is concerned that the Arctic’s indigenous populations might face losing their status in council meetings once more non-Arctic countries are admitted to the organization.
China’s focus on the Arctic Circle is increasing with the Chinese government actively allocating financial and human resources to investigate the area. Although the scientific research was supposed to be dedicated to the threat of global warming and the dramatic topographical changes taking place in the region, Chinese authorities started to contemplate the potential benefits of an ice-free Arctic.
The Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration said the country has organized 27 expeditions in the Antarctic since 1984. It also has accomplished four expeditions in the Arctic since 1999 and is planning a fifth trip to the region this coming July.
Since China established its first Arctic research station in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago in 2004, it has become more active in the area. Exploring the North Pole and South Pole has been included in China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, which said China will organize five expeditions to the Antarctic plus three tours to the Arctic Circle.
India, however, only started scientific activities in the Arctic in 2007 and founded its research station a year later. After establishing base stations in the area, China and India will have a more frequent presence in the Arctic, even though they don’t have any territory there. Likewise, other interested non-Arctic states and organizations are seeking to exert their influence in the area, which would significantly change the current political landscape of the region.
“The council is struggling with this question,” said Tony Penikett, a special adviser to the Munk-Gordon project. “The non-Arctic states’ interest is not just a fleeting fancy. For the council to remain relevant, must it give them a larger role or remain an exclusive club?”