Application for observer status in region up in the air

Updated: 2013-05-13 07:18

By Zhou Siyu (China Daily)

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 Application for observer status in region up in the air

As the Arctic ice retreats, China, along with many countries in the world, is taking an increasing interest in the region. Det Norske Veritas / for China Daily

When asked to comment on China's application for permanent observer status to the Arctic Council, Mr Gustaf Lind, ambassador of Sweden for the Arctic and chairman of the Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials, declined. When quizzed about the council's stance on how the interests of non-Arctic states regarding Arctic issues could be represented in the Arctic Council, Mr Lind also refused to reply.

His silence over these questions is understandable: Anything that has something to do with China is not to be treated lightly, especially at a time when the council is about to make a decision on the country's application. Yet people in the Chinese government do not find this silence very comforting.

"We are not very optimistic about the outcome of this year's meeting," a person close to the matter told me. "We don't think China stands a chance (of participating) in Arctic issues," the person added.

China first applied for permanent observer status as early as 2006. But in the Arctic Council's ministerial meetings, no decision was taken on that. In this year's meeting, which is to open on May 15, the council was expected to deliver a decision on the country's renewed application.

As the Arctic ice is retreating, China, along with many countries in the world, has taken an increasing interest in the region. Because of the country's growing national wealth and global influence, each step taken by China is closely watched by the international community.

The tension came to a head in March 2010, when Linda Jakobson, a senior researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, published a paper named China Prepares for an Ice-free Arctic. In this paper, Ms Jakobson explained the Chinese government's stance on Artic issues and analyzed the possible changes in its foreign relationships toward major Arctic players.

Put under the spotlight, the Chinese government started to feel the sensitivity of the Arctic issue. Despite encouragement from some researchers for the government to "grasp the Arctic opportunity", Chinese officials have adopted a more subdued attitude. So far the country has issued no official agenda for the Arctic and the issue has not been mentioned in meetings between China's top leaders and their counterparts in the West.

China's silence has not stopped provoking warnings and criticism in the Western world. But for the Arctic Council, which has showed ambitions of becoming a more influential intergovernmental forum, a decision on such an application is still hard to make.

As the Arctic ice continues melting, increasing traffic will be transported through the newly opened Arctic routes. The routes would cut the sailing time between major European and Asian ports by roughly a third, reducing the shipping companies' costs for fuel as well as insurance against pirates.

It is inevitable that China and Japan, which are applying for permanent observer status at the same time, will become more and more active regarding Arctic issues. At this point in time, to turn down the applications of the world's second and third largest economies would only undermine the council's international influence.

Yet the council has reasons to fear that newcomers such as China might somehow disturb the current regulation and stability among circumpolar states. According to a report by the Economist, China's investment in Greenland's mining sector might put Denmark in an awkward position of either shutting down a lucrative project for Greenland or undercutting its own labor laws.

China has by far remained an outsider on Arctic issues and, in spite of its self-restraining efforts, it might stay so longer than expected. In the meantime, regrettably for Mr Lind, the council might need him to use silence as a shield against more and more questions to come.

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(China Daily 05/13/2013 page17)