China, Korea, EU woo Arctic Council at Norway conference
Ministerial gathering in May to ponder observer applications
Officials from China, South Korea and the European Union, all of whom seek a higher level of participation in circumpolar affairs, wooed the Arctic Council Jan. 22 at an Arctic conference in Tromsø, Norway.
All three entities seek observer status on the Arctic Council, an upgrade in status that could give them more influence over circumpolar issues.
The Arctic Council will decide on new observer applications at a ministerial meeting to be held this May in Kiruna in northern Sweden, just before Sweden relinquishes the chairmanship to Canada.
The Chinese ambassador to Norway, Zhao Jun, said in a keynote speech Jan. 21 that the accelerating pace of climate change “will significantly influence the landscape of global shipping, trade and energy supply,” matters that are of crucial interest to China.
At the same time, he said the international community has so far approached these issues in a spirit of co-operation.
“With expanding areas and a tremendous potential, the Arctic co-operation has become more and more institutionalized and mature,” Jun said.
To that end, he said China believes the Arctic Council is the most important international forum for discussions about environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic.
“By enhancing cooperation, the international community could effectively handle and find solutions to relevant issues with joint hands,” he said.
The Chinese polar class icebreaker Xue Long has operated since 1994 and the Chinese government plans to put a second icebreaker into service in 2014.
The Xue Long startled many observers in 1999 when it made an unexpected appearance off Tukoytaktuk.
China applied for observer status with the Arctic Council in 2006, but so far its application has been denied.
But opposition to this upgrade of China’s status appears to be softening. On Jan. 22, the Xinhua news agency reported that Norway will now support China’s application.
Jun also said China “respects the values, interests, culture and traditions of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants,” and is willing to explore the idea of co-operating with indigenous people.
That’s an attempt to meet a criteria for entry that Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, stressed during remarks to reporters in Iqaluit this past October.
The South Korean ambassador to Norway, Byong-hyun Lee, told the same audience Jan. 21 that his country seeks observer status to the Arctic Council because of its commitment to fighting climate change and because maritime shipping is vital for Korea’s trade-dependent economy.
“The coming era of the Arctic seaway provides us with the potential for shorter and faster shipping routes and also requires international cooperation to address technical and environment related matters in the Arctic Ocean,” Lee said.
He also said climate change is a “threat to humanity” and that the Arctic needs a new model for development.
“Korea’s interest in the Arctic region is in line with its endeavor towards global green growth,” he said.
He said Korea’s first ice-breaking research vessel, the Araon, finished its third research voyage this past summer and that Korea has a keen interest in the Northern Sea Route, which provides an alternate shipping route between Asia and western Europe through the waters north of Russia.
Maria Damanaki, the European commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries, said the European Union wants to contribute to Arctic affairs in three areas: supporting research, promoting sustainable resource extraction and commercial fishing, and “stepping up its dialogue with all Arctic states.”
And she said the EU is still committed to achieving a global reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by all major emitters.
“The Arctic is heating up, literally and figuratively. It is urgent that we agree on an appropriate course of action together,” she said.
She also said the EU supports a “regulatory framework” to help conserve Arctic fish stocks.
“A third of the fish caught in the Arctic ends up on European plates, but this figure could well increase as fish stocks move further North due to the seas warming up,” she said.
As for the EU’s often frosty relations with Arctic indigenous groups, Damanaki said the EU is “expanding its outreach” to Arctic non-governmental organizations.
“The European Commission will soon organize a meeting with Arctic indigenous groups to deepen our mutual understanding and to find ways to work together in a number of practical areas,” she said.
And like the other speakers, Damanaki made a pitch for an upgrade to the EU’s status at the Arctic Council.
“The EU is aware of the Arctic Council’s challenges and of the difficult choices ahead. But I am confident that the ministers will come to a fair decision,” Damanaki said.