Every two years, the Arctic Council, the group of eight countries with Arctic territory, convenes to set regional policy. China really
wants to be a part of this, and has twice before been turned down for observer status, which would let it sit in on meetings without voting.
The third time's a charm, it seems. The Arctic Council, which is now meeting in Sweden, just admitted China as an observer member,
along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
Contrary to what you might expect, the reason China wants so badly to be a fly on the wall of the council doesn't have as much to do with its push to mine
the Arctic's trove of oil, natural gas, and metals. It can negotiate mining and extraction concessions for that on a country-by-country basis.
What it can't do is determine territorial claims to the Arctic Ocean. Each of the last two summers, more than 50 percent of the sea-ice cover has receded -- and it
is disappearing faster than climate models expected.
The thaw of the polar ice cap each summer means that waters once dense with ice floes are now navigable by ship.
And because it's not clear that those waters are covered by the international law of the sea, which allows all countries the right to exploit international waters, issues like
delineating territory and establishing fishing rights in large part falls to the Arctic Council. Indeed, that's something the council will be discussing in
the upcoming meeting. Here's a look at how waters have been and are expected to continue receding:
United Nations Environment Programme, GRID-Arendal, Maps and Graphics Library
Why is this so important to China? One reason is access to the Arctic Ocean's fishing supply. The "new fishing grounds" will become "the world's largest
storehouse of biological protein," wrote Tang Guoqiang, China's former ambassador to Norway, in a recent paper.
As we recently discussed, fishing is a big business for China, so much so
that it's raiding the territorial waters of other countries. Arctic nations are currently mulling an accord to prevent fishing in the open water above the
Bering Strait until scientists can assess fish stocks. The objective would be to
manage commercial fishing, not to protect the fish habitat, noted the New York Times. Here's what the territory currently looks like:
Pew Charitable Trusts
The other reason is that the "Northwest Passage
" and "Northeast Passage," as they're sometimes called, connect China to
Europe, reducing travel from around 15,000 miles to 8,000 miles. That would save ships time and fuel. Here's what that looks like now, on the left, and how
that's set to change:
Smith and Stephenson, PNAS, Early Edition
China's attempts to join the Arctic Council have evolved over the years. It once took more of a bullying tone. "The Arctic belongs to all the people around
the world as no nation has sovereignty over it," said a retired Chinese navy rear admiral at a governmental meeting in 2010, adding that China should have a right to Arctic resources.
China justifies this investment on the grounds that rising waters and melting ice affect everyone. It relies on such an argument because China's own
obsessive emphasis on "national sovereignty" -- particularly when it comes to territory -- leaves Chinese officials with little claim on Arctic policy. Instead,
they've opted for referring to China as a "near-Arctic state" and a " Arctic stakeholder." (The shortest distance between
China's border and the Arctic Circle is about 900 miles.)
Apparently, the council thinks China is "near-Arctic" enough. It was a tricky question for the Arctic Council member states concerned about diluting the
forum with too many competing interests, says Mia Bennett, a polar studies researcher at Cambridge University.
"Whereas the Nordic countries tend to be quite receptive towards outside interest in the Arctic, Canada and Russia -- the Arctic's two largest states -- are more
possessive of their sovereignty in the Arctic," Bennett told Quartz before the decision was announced. "They worry about losing control of their shipping
routes ... as non-Arctic countries like China have an interest in allowing freedom of the seas and unrestricted shipping in the region."
But while some observer members worried about their participation being diluted, it was probably in the Arctic Council's interest to loop China into its
discussions. (And note that it can always kick misbehaving observer members out.)
Plus, there were ways China might sidestep the council to influence policy. "If countries like China or Japan are excluded ... they might shift the discussion
to other forums like the International Maritime Organization or UN, thereby weakening the power of the Arctic Council," said Bennett.