When the Arctic Council accepted China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore as observers at their meeting on May 15, it heralded a new era of economic development in the region.
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum for raising and resolving issues in the Arctic region. Current member states include the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. While the newly accepted observer states are not permitted to vote, they can present projects for approval by the council.
Historically, the Arctic Council has mostly been concerned with the environment. In fact, the organization’s predecessor was the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. The State Department explains that "although 'sustainable economic development' is mentioned in the AEPS, the primary emphasis was on environmental issues." The countries cooperating on the endeavor at its early stages were those geographically adjacent to the region.
The expansion of the council to include China, India and others as observers has been hailed as an expansion of the council's influence but also as a sign of coming economic development.
As countries around the globe race to secure energy sources to sustain their economic growth, attention has turned to the Arctic as a resource. According to the BBC, "Up to 13% of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, and 30% of undiscovered gas deposits are said to lie above the Arctic Circle."
The news coverage surrounding the May 15 meeting has highlighted concerns about aggressive Chinese economic development in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry even took a swipe at China when he addressed the council on environmental issues. He pointed out that United States has made progress on these issues and is now "below Kyoto levels in emissions," but said that "The problem is that everything that we do or everything one other nation does is going to be wiped out by China or another nation if they continue with coal firepower at the rate that we are proceeding." In this statement, Kerry implies that China cannot be trusted to respect the internationally agreed status quo in the north in its quest for additional energy resources.
The Arctic is becoming a more attractive region for development as temperatures rise and melt the ice that has made the area so treacherous to navigate. The New York Times reports that "the Northern Sea Route, once largely a wish, has become increasingly viable during longer stretches of the summer," and that the number of ships traveling that route in 2012 was 10 times the number in 2010. The shipping route through the Arctic is much shorter than traditional Asia-Europe shipping routes.
Ironically for a historically environmentalist organization like the Arctic Council, rising global temperatures and their negative environmental impact have actually made the council more interesting for economic powers like China, India, Japan and South Korea.
Xinhua confirms that China does intend to expand its economic activity in the region. The former Chinese Ambassador to Norway said that "if the route opens up, China will join other Asian countries in taking advantage of the convenience, which would greatly reduce costs and increase freight volume."
However, the focus on China's economic aspirations has obscured the fact that member states such as Russia and Canada are also pushing a shift towards the economic development of the region. The Canadian government said in January that it intended to use the Arctic Council bring the economic benefits of the Arctic to their Northern residents.
Even the White House, despite Kerry’s nearly exclusive focus on environmental issues in his public statements at the council last week, recently released a National Strategy for the Arctic Region that marked a shift towards prioritizing U.S. security and economic interests in the north.
The Arctic Council is the perfect body to tackle the dual challenges of the environment and economic development. Its historical orientation towards environmental issues ensure that those concerns will not be abandoned in the push towards economic development, and may herald improved best practices in sustainable economic development. All parties involved have agreed to use the same forum to resolve their interests in the region, making the Arctic Council a model for international cooperation around the world.