By Steven Lee Myers, The New York Times, May 15, 2013
|Melting ice has opened the arctic to shipping and exploitation of its riches|
KIRUNA, Sweden — The Arctic Council agreed on Wednesday to expand to include six new nations, including China, as observer states, as a changing climate opens the Arctic to increasing economic and political competition.
With the Arctic ice melting, the region’s abundant supplies of oil, gas and minerals have become newly accessible, as have shortened shipping routes and open water for commercial fishing, setting off a global competition for influence and economic opportunities far beyond the nations that border the Arctic.
“There is nothing that should unite quite like our concerns for both the promises and the challenges of the northernmost reaches of the earth,” Secretary of State John Kerry, who brokered a compromise over the observer nations, said on Wednesday at the council’s final session. He added, “The consequences of our nations’ decision don’t stop at the 66th parallel.”
In addition to China, the other nations granted observer status to the Arctic Council were India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
All have sought economic opportunities in the region and viewed participation in the Arctic Council as a means of influencing the decisions of its permanent members. The European Union also applied as an observer, but its final status remained unresolved pending resolution of a dispute with Canada over trade in seal products.
Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said the addition of the observers strengthened the council by recognizing the pre-eminence of the permanent nations’ sovereignty in the Arctic.
“I would say it demonstrates the broad international acceptance of the role of the Arctic Council, because by being observer, these organizations and states, they accept the principles and the sovereignty of the Arctic Council on Arctic issues,” he said when asked if adding participants threatened to dilute the council’s effectiveness. “As a matter of fact, it strengthens the position of the Arctic Council on the global scene.”
The council, created in 1996, has matured from a largely symbolic organization to one addressing the quickening pace and consequences of climate change in the Arctic, prompting what has already been called a new “Great Game.” Meeting here above the Arctic Circle in Sweden, the council adopted only its second legally binding agreement: one to prepare and coordinate a response to potential spills that could result from increasing oil and gas exploration.
Two years ago, in Greenland, the council adopted a similar agreement to coordinate search and rescue operations over 13 million square miles of ocean.
The ballooning interest has raised concerns of reckless development that could harm what is a fragile environment, as several scientific studies presented to the council made clear. Outside the municipal building here in Kiruna, where ministers from the council met, protesters called for restrictions on economic development. “No Arctic Oil, Please,” one banner said.
The council’s final declaration, though, recognized “the central role of business in the development of the Arctic,” though it called for development to be conducted in ways that would sustain indigenous peoples and the environment.
The Northern Sea Route, once largely a wish, has become increasingly viable during longer stretches of the summer, allowing ships traveling from Asia to Europe to traverse the Arctic in far less time than they would on the traditional route through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.
In 2010, only four ships carrying 111,000 tons of cargo made the northern passage; by last year, 46 did, carrying 1.26 million tons. Among those was China’s first ship through the Arctic, an icebreaker called Xuelong, or Snow Dragon.
The United States had not previously taken a public position on the question of observer states at the Arctic Council, but after Mr. Kerry brokered a compromise during a debate over dinner on Tuesday night that became spirited, it joined the others in expanding the council’s future participants.
The Arctic Council plans to hold its next meeting in 2015 in Canada.