Arctic Council grants China, Japan observer status

Arctic states agreed Wednesday to let nations that are located nowhere near the Earth's north to become observers to their diplomatic council.

E.U. has tentative status pending questions from Arctic nations

Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt hands the gavel which symbolizes handing the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Canada's Minister of the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq, at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, in Kiruna, Sweden, on Wednesday. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

Arctic states agreed Wednesday to let nations that are located nowhere near the Earth's north to become observers to their diplomatic council, boosting rising superpowers China, India and South Korea that are seeking to mine the region for its untapped energy and other natural resources.

The European Union also was tentatively granted observer status to the eight-state council but must first address several questions about its bid, including concerns about its ban on Canadian seal exports. 

It was an odd but not entirely unexpected move by the Arctic Council, which traditionally has served as a watchdog for the rights of the region's indigenous people and protector of its fragile ecosystem. 

Widespread thawing of Arctic ice has alarmed environmentalists but has become an economic lure to nations seeking to ship cargo across once-frozen seas. The global warming is making the Arctic's elusive supply of oil, gas, minerals and precious metals available — in some areas, for the first time ever — as ever-expanding counties like China and India hunt for additional energy supplies. 

Officials estimate the Arctic holds 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, and 30 percent of undiscovered gas deposits. 

Ministers suggested the inclusion of the energy-hungry nations at the Arctic Council will force them to uphold the diplomatic panel's core goals of safeguarding the region. 

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," said Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide. "By becoming an observer you're also signing up to the principles embodied by this organization, and that is why we have been working hard to make that happen." 

In all, six nations — China, India, Italy, Japan, Korea and Singapore — were granted observer status to the council, joining several previously-accepted counties from Europe.

The eight states that are permanent members of the non-binding panel all touch the Arctic Circle, including the United States, through Alaska. Denmark is connected to the Arctic Circle through its relationship with Greenland, which is a semi-autonomous territory. 

Canada's minister to the council, Leona Aglukkaq, voiced mild but restrained discomfort with the new observers to the council, which she said was created "by northerners, for northerners, before the Arctic was of interest to the rest of the world." Canada will chair of the council for the next two years.