Cheng Baozhi
Associate Research Fellow
Center for Marine & Polar Studies
Institute for Global Governance Studies
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Apr 16 2013
Finding True North
By Cheng Baozhi

In recent years, the Arctic Council has continued accelerating institutional development to cope with a host of challenges posed by hastening climate change. It is in the midst of a transformation from a policy-focused high-level governmental forum to a decision-making organization.

The Arctic Council Standing Secretariat was established on January 21 in Norway's northern city of Tromso. The secretariat, with a secretary general and 10 members, is responsible for supporting the Arctic Council and strengthening communication and coordination on Arctic affairs. Last November, Magnus Johannesson, Secretary General of the Ministry for the Environment of Iceland, was appointed as the first director of the secretariat. Now the Arctic Council has largely established itself as an international organization as defined by international law, with a three-tier structure of a supreme authority (the biennial ministerial meeting), an executive body (the biannual senior officials' meeting) and a day-to-day administrative body (the Standing Secretariat).

Institutional development

The Arctic Council was founded in 1996 as a positive development following the end of the Cold War. The eight countries that have territory in the Arctic area—the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark—hope that through the council they will be able to carry out practical cooperation on environmental protection and sustainable development in the area. Compared with normal international organizations, the Arctic Council's advantage rests more on the organization's powerful and authoritative ability of research and assessment rather than its decision-making influence. The council usually expresses its concerns to the international community by issuing a series of assessment reports based on scientific research. For example, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment have greatly promoted Arctic governance.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment issued in 2004 significantly changed public perception of the Arctic as a frozen desert. People began to realize that the region has giant economic potential in its ample resources, suggesting that stricter governance measures should be introduced. As part of the achievements brought by the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment released in 2009, the Arctic Council has urged its members to coordinate their actions and design a whole set of compulsory navigation rules applying to the extreme environment of the Arctic. Currently, the legal work of rule-making is being carried out under the framework of the International Maritime Organization, and there are hopes for a breakthrough in the next two years.

Climate change and environmental protection are the two major focuses of the Arctic Council. Moreover, the council will strengthen agreements on search and rescue operations, navigation rules and large-scale resource development in the future to improve its administrative structure. The above-mentioned eight countries signed an agreement on cooperation for sea and air search and rescue in the Arctic in 2011. The document is the first international convention with a formal legal effect since the Arctic Council was set up. The agreement did not make any solid breakthroughs from the perspective of international law because it can neither influence internal legislation of the Arctic countries, nor force the member states of the council to promote their search and rescue ability or add new resources. However, it has cemented a solid basis for strengthening Arctic administration and cooperation and set an example for managing similar future agreements. Therefore, it effectively enhances the council's credibility and capacity of implementing agreements.

In September 2012, the eight countries conducted their first real-time maritime search and rescue rehearsal along the east coast of Greenland, Denmark, putting the agreement to practice. Also, with the powerful push of the United States and Norway, the Arctic Council has drafted a legally binding agreement to prevent and cope with oil leaks, and the draft will be submitted to the new ministerial meeting for signing in May. Oil and gas exploitation projects are under high risk because of the harsh climate and environmental conditions in the Arctic. Once an oil leak occurs on the seabed, it will be difficult to control. Polluted ice may drift to places as far as 1,300 km away to create an irrecoverable disaster much worse than the Gulf of Mexico oil leak in 2010. The council works to restrain international energy giants like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and British Petroleum to hold off on their ambitions to exploit gas and oil resources in the Arctic with a stringent set of laws.

Chinese participation

As a country geographically outside the Arctic, China will have to strengthen its cooperation with the Arctic Council to actively and effectively participate in Arctic events, because the latter serves as the most important regional mechanism for Arctic governance. China has formally submitted its application for an observer status to the council, while Japan, South Korea, India, Italy, the EU and Singapore made the same applications successively. A final decision will be made at the coming ministerial meeting in May in Sweden's Kiruna.

The eight countries have differing ideas about accepting observers, as they have different views on the nationalization and global common management of the Arctic. In accordance with international law, the international seafloor belongs to all humans, and is under the administration of the International Seabed Authority. Most parts of the Arctic Ocean are international seabed and international waters. So the exploitation of the Arctic area should be shared by all countries in the world. Geopolitically speaking, however, the participation of global actors like the EU and China might make indigenous groups and the eight Arctic countries worry that their interests will be marginalized and the structure of the Arctic Council will be changed, which is the root cause of their current hesitance.

China should strengthen coordination and cooperation with related countries through diplomatic channels during the council's institutional building period to become an observer.
Above all, China needs to make it clear to major Arctic players that as a non-Arctic country it recognizes Arctic nations' sovereignty and related rights in the area. Its involvement will focus on global climate change and scientific research. China's participation will help the council promote openness, credibility and transparency, while not influencing permanent participants' right of decision-making, or changing the organization's power structure.

While deepening cooperation with North European countries for their support of China's participation, China also should value its coordination and cooperation with the EU and major EU members, such as Germany, France and Britain, because of their similar stances, interests and identities. In September 2012, China and the EU issued a joint communiqué after their summit meeting, agreeing to exchange opinions on Arctic affairs related to climate change, scientific research, environmental protection, sustainable development and maritime transportation. The communiqué serves as a solid basis for their cooperation on Arctic events in the future.
China must attach importance to Russia and Canada's stance on Arctic issues, so as to get their understanding on its involvement. Russia and Canada are major countries in the Arctic Council. Rising temperatures and the retreat of sea ice now bring their remote areas big opportunities. They have released ambitious and expensive exploitation plans. Local governments in the two countries expect that China can increase investment in these plans.

Moreover, China should strengthen its policy coordination with the United States. Although Washington was not enthusiastic about the Arctic Council in the past, its policy has slowly changed in recent years. Despite the two countries' differences on strategic issues in the Asia-Pacific region, they share common interests in guaranteeing the freedom of navigation in the Arctic Ocean. China should try to secure U.S. support on joining in the Arctic Council as an observer.

Instead of playing up its navigation and resource interests in the area, China should emphasize its identity as a "public goods provider" to non-state actors, like residents, local governments and enterprises and promote cooperation with them.


Source of documents:BEIJING REVIEW