China asserted its Arctic presence at a meeting of the Arctic Council Wednesday, advancing the ascendant superpower's expanding interest in the region. The Arctic Council granted China "permanent observer" status, giving it influence over decisions made by the group's eight member nations.
It comes as melting Arctic ice opens new shipping lanes and access to oil and gas. Once an undesirable, obscure destination, the Arctic is quickly emerging as a critical frontier in the global quest for resources. The accelerating interest has many concerned for the future stability of a region already undergoing rapid environmental change.
"Eyes are on the Arctic right now," said Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager and senior scientist at Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization based in Washington. "It’s really a big resource rush. We have the opportunity to decide how and if that resource rush happens."
Oil and gas are the obvious targets. The region lays claim to 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil resources and nearly a third of its undiscovered natural gas. That captures the attention of an economic juggernaut in search of alternatives to its dependence on coal power and foreign oil.
"China fears that supply disruptions or shortages could derail its continued economic momentum, thus causing social unrest and threatening the survival of the regime," according to a paper on China's Arctic strategy published in the Naval War College Review this spring. "Chinese leaders, tremendously anxious at the prospect of such an economic downturn, have identified oil as a component of China’s national economic security since 2003."
Access to fisheries and shipping routes are just as important to China, the world's largest producer of fish. Although exact numbers are unknown, the Arctic region is considered to hold vast quantities of marine life.
China is expected to use its newfound role in the council to argue for a global Arctic strategy. Because the region's rapidly melting ice has implications worldwide, it says, decisionmaking in the region should not be limited to the eight countries whose borders touch the Arctic.
Rising global temperatures are melting Arctic ice at a record rate, which has enormous implications for coastal communities and food supplies across the world.
"The Arctic is inextricably linked to the world," Mr. Krenz said, in a phone interview. "As we’re seeing with climate change, what happens in the rest of the world affects the Arctic. Importantly for the rest of the world, the opposite is true too."
The eight member nations, which include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, also agreed to an oil-spill prevention plan during Wednesday's meeting. The agreement aims to increase cooperation and coordination among member states when responding to oil spills in the region.
"As the US was reminded painfully in the Gulf of Mexico, we need strong partnerships and shared operational guidelines before a disaster occurs," said Secretary of State John Kerry, who was representing the US at the meeting, as reported by the BBC. "We need to prevent disasters happening in the first place."