Host Country Agreement Signing Ceremony January 2013

Host Country Agreement Signing Ceremony January 2013 (Photo courtesy The Arctic Council)

The Arctic Council – the association of the world’s polar countries – has agreed to grant observer status to six non-Arctic nations.

Some people fear the countries are trying to secure long-term commercial interests.

The Arctic Council will now allow China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India and Italy observer status.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski attended the biennial Arctic Council Ministerial this week in Kiruna, Sweden. She says the new observer countries will not vote on policies and agreements, but they will have a voice in negotiations.

“It allows you to be in the discussions, to help formulate the papers that will be reviews,” Murkowski said. “It is more than allowing you to sit in a room with a credential pass around your neck.”

Voting on new partnerships, like the one on oil spill prevention agreed to this week, remains in the hands of the eight polar countries.

And alongside those are six permanent participants – groups representing Arctic natives.

Charlie Ebinger directs the Energy Security Initiative at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. He says people are justifiably concerned that these new countries are using observer status as a stepping stone.

“Obviously those countries want observer status because they believe they have long term commercial interests,” Ebinger said. “The Chinese have interest in mineral deposits in Greenland, both rare earths and uranium.”

And it’s not just mining the countries are interested in. James Collins is a former ambassador to Russia. He says the Arctic is still an emerging market, and more resources will become available as climate change opens the ocean.

“There’s shipping, there’s energy, there’s resource extraction,” Collins said. “And exactly which companies are going to actively pursue those is only beginning to be defined.”

Canada takes over the chair of the Arctic Council this week. And the United States follows suit, so for the next four years, the chair will be in North American control.

Luke Coffey is a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and he says it’s a good sign of U.S. involvement that both Secretary of State John Kerry, and his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, attended the Arctic Council meetings. They are the first two Secretaries of State to do so.

But it should not stop there. He says the United States should start to consider a diplomatic post to handle Arctic negotiations.

“For the U.S. to show they are serious about the Arctic it needs to be at a very senior level, which very well may mean a more senior level than ambassador,” Coffey said.

Coffey suggests a deputy secretary of state for the Arctic. Both Senator Murkowski and Senator Mark Begich have called for an Arctic ambassador. Senator Murkowski says the administration does not support the position.

As for the expanding council, Senator Murkowski says the observer issue is resolved after it dominated much of this week’s gathering.

She says no countries will be added to the list of observer states, nor will the European Union, which is seeking the designation.

Still, there are major global players located far from the north that will now have a hand in Arctic policy.

“There’s a lot of discussion about ‘well what do you think their motives are?’ I look at it and say they see that the Arctic is filled with opportunity and promise. Things are happening up there. They want to know what’s going on. They want to be on the inside,” Murkowski said.

She says a country’s observer status is up for review every four years, though she acknowledges no country has lost it since the Arctic Council formed in 1996.

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