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China appears closer to permanent observer status in Arctic

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic

On Monday, April 16, a deputy Chinese foreign minister, Song Tao, announced that Sweden, the current chair of the Arctic Council, supported his country's bid for permanent observer status in the multilateral organization.

He stated, "China applauds Swedish support for China to be an observer to the Arctic Council." Tao was speaking at a briefing on Premier Wen Jiabao's upcoming eight-day trip to Iceland, Sweden, Germany and Poland.

He added, "We hope to work together with relevant countries, including Iceland and Sweden, to contribute to peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic."

Wen's visit to Iceland is significant, as it will be the first trip made by a Chinese premier to the country in 40 years.

Wen will meet with officials to discuss ways to improve economic and scientific relations between the two countries. Geothermal energy and research on the aurora borealis are two subjects slated to be discussed.

Arctic shipping in the spotlight

Shipping could also very well be on the table, as China is interested in Arctic shipping routes, and Iceland seeks to take advantage of its strategic location between Europe and North America to turn itself into a transshipment hub. In Sweden, Wen is expected to sign an agreement to create a sustainably developed industrial park.

Right now, six countries currently have permanent observer status: France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the U.K. Permanent observer status grants countries invitations to all Arctic Council meetings and a better ability to contribute to discussions. If China were to attain this position, it would be the first Asian country to do so. Both Japan and South Korea have also applied for permanent observer status.

Countries must meet many criteria in order to earn acceptance, including recognizing "Arctic States' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic." While China has ratified UNCLOS, to the chagrin of some of the Arctic littoral states, Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo expressed in 2010, "The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it." Yet his next sentence seemed focused on keeping China's involvement research-oriented, as the country will likely not be making any territorial grabs. He continued, "China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world's population."

The Norway question

To achieve this role, China is building strong ties with several Nordic countries including Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden. With Denmark and Iceland, China is focusing on resource development. With Sweden, more cooperation is done in the areas of research and the environment. The glaring absence among China's Scandinavian partners is Norway. Ever since China imprisoned political activist Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010, relations have been tense.

Beijing froze political ties with Oslo, and bilateral trade dropped significantly. In light of the lack of constructive dialogue between the two countries, it is unclear whether Norway supports China's quest for permanent observer status. This could be problematic for China, as the permanent members must agree unanimously to accept new observers.

Yet in Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre's speech to the Storting (Norwegian Parliament) in February 2012, he announced, "Norway continues to support China's application for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. We hope to have a dialogue with China on this issue, as we have with other candidate countries." If Støre's comments are an accurate reflection of where Norway's policy with China now stands, though, perhaps there a realistic path for the country to permanent observer status does exist.

Regardless of whether China can gain permanent observer status at the next Arctic Council meeting, to be held in Sweden in 2013, it is still busy expanding its capabilities and involvement in the circumpolar north. China is building a second research icebreaker, which should be ready in 2014.

It will be able to break through ice more quickly than the sole member of its existing fleet, the Xuelong, which it purchased from the Ukraine in 1994. With two icebreakers, it will have one more than the U.S., which currently only has the USCGC Healy. Possessing just one icebreaker not only curtails a country's ability to conduct simultaneous operations at both poles. It also undermines claims to legitimate polar power status.

Mia Bennett holds degrees in Political Science and European Studies and minors in Geospatial Information Systems & Technology, Scandinavian, and French. She focuses on the politics of Arctic resource management and Canadian infrastructure, and is interested in the application of GIS technology to Arctic dilemmas. She freelances for the magazine ReNew Canada and currently lives in New York City.

This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.