Squaring the Arctic Circle

Updated: 2013-05-23 07:49

By Mei Xinyu (China Daily)

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After years of persistent efforts, China has finally joined the international "club" which decides the rules for the Arctic region. At the Arctic Council's eighth ministerial meeting - held in Kiruna, Sweden, on May 15 - China was granted observer status, which is seen as a victory for China's geopolitical diplomacy in issues such as polar research and cooperation, and the Arctic's sustainable development in the light of climate change.

Established in 1996, the Arctic Council has eight member states - the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Initially, the council acted as a high-level intergovernmental forum to address the issues faced by the governments and peoples of the countries in the Arctic region. But climate change - and the resultant fear of the Arctic becoming ice-free in the near future - has made resource development, trade and shipping in the Arctic region matters of even greater strategic importance. As a result, many countries, and governmental and non-governmental organizations now hope to join the council.

Before its eighth ministerial meeting, the council had only a few European countries and non-governmental organizations as observers, while China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, India, the European Union, Italy and Greenpeace had applied for similar status. The council's decision to make China - along with India, Singapore, Italy, Japan and the ROK - as observers is in line with the interests of both Beijing and its trade partners in the Arctic region. Besides, the observer status in the Arctic Council will help China play a greater role as a responsible global power.

But the council's expansion should not be taken as a unilateral favor to any country. In fact, it reflects the expectations of the council's member states. To become more influential in issues such as natural resources and climate change in the Arctic region, the council needs to have more member states. And Nordic countries have to increase their trade and shipping volumes if they want to exploit the mineral resources in the region.

Given the huge impact of the Arctic Circle on climate change, it would be unreasonable for a small group of countries in the region to decide issues that concern the fate of all the people in the world. If barred by the council from taking part in the forum and jointly making rules for regional issues, non-Arctic countries would sooner or later be forced to propose a new framework for the purpose which would eventually marginalize the council. Therefore, the decision of the Arctic Council to accept the participation of populous non-Arctic countries like China is an example of pragmatism and would serve the interests of all human beings.

Being the biggest exporter and second largest importer - as well as leading importer of mineral resources - China has given special importance to opening new shipping routes and importing mineral resources because of the threats posed by climate change. And since China is expected to be one of the most frequent users of the shipping routes and a leading resource developer in the Arctic region, it deserves to be part of the decision-making process.

The Arctic, as is well known, greatly influences the world's weather and climate patterns. And therein lies its importance for China. As a land prone to natural disasters, China suffered the devastating effects of famine that led to the death of tens of millions of people from the 1920s to the 1940s. A drought that ravaged the provinces in the Yellow River basin in 1929 claimed the lives of more than 34 million people. According to John Leighton Stuart, US ambassador to China from 1946 to 1949, between 3 and 7 million Chinese perished in famines before 1949.

History teaches us to prepare for natural calamities, and increasing our inputs in research on the Arctic is part of that preparation. Therefore, the international community has no reason to stop a country with one-fifth of the world's population from conducting scientific research for every human's benefit.

Even though resource development in the Arctic circle seems a lucrative proposition - and a US Geological Survey in 2008 says the region has 22 percent of the world's undiscovered but exploitable crude oil and natural gas reserves - mineral resources in the region are not as attractive for China because of the actual cost of the shipping.

Besides, the energy reserve in the Arctic is an estimate, and it may not be commercially viable to exploit oil and gas in the region, especially in the initial stages, because of the extremely high costs involved. The real value of Arctic lies elsewhere: shipping routes and climate research.

The author is a researcher with the International Trade and Economic Cooperation Institute, affiliated to the Ministry of Commerce.

(China Daily 05/23/2013 page12)