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Arctic Observers: Shaping Regional Interests

Arctic Observers: Shaping Regional Interests

December 17, 2014

By Sophie des Beauvais

Last May, the Arctic Council granted Observer status to six new nations, including China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Now housing 12 Observer states, the intergovernmental forum created in 1996 to promote cooperation and coordination among Arctic states, has drawn more attention around the world.

Arctic Council Observers can be states, inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, and NGOs. The status has been granted by the eight Arctic member states— Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.—to a total of 23 nations or organizations. The main condition of Observer status is to demonstrate an ability to contribute to the Council’s work. Although Observers are not allowed to speak during meetings and do not play a central role in the decision-making process, they have the ability to stay informed and discuss the issues with the Arctic nations.

France was granted Observer status in 2000, four years after the creation of the Council.  It was granted such status because of its strong scientific research tradition and business interests. Some of France’s biggest corporations, such as Total, GDF Suez, and Areva, are deeply involved in the Arctic. According to Olivier Guyonvarch, from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “French involvement [in the Arctic Council] is explained by its historical presence in the region, the quality of its scientific research, and its interest for environmental protection and global warming issues.”

However, France has never established official policies to govern the Arctic. In 2009, Michel Rocard was appointed French ambassador for the international negotiations on the polar region. Even though he supports the establishment of intergovernmental regulation to protect the Arctic, he insists that France has no strategic interests in the Arctic, and its diplomacy aims only for the greater good of the Arctic.

Indeed, France, as a nuclear power, could play a strategic role in the Arctic. Though it is unlikely to do so in the short term, it could assume such a role  through NATO or the European Union. The EU has a precedent of military solidarity, whereby in the event of an act of aggression against one of its member, the entire Union would rally to protect it. NATO is founded on a similar policy. “Insofar as the potential tensions in the Arctic region concern NATO and EU countries (the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway), as well as Russia, France can be indirectly involved in crises in this zone,” said French ministry of Defense Hervé Morin in April 2009.  Moreover, the Arctic is the main stage for nuclear deterrence, and a strategic zone for the French nuclear defense policy. The French Device-Launching Nuclear Submarines (SNLE-NG) frequently sail in the Arctic while practicing ballistic missiles launches.

Arctic Observers: Shaping Regional Interests

While France has comfortably observed its Observer status, several other non-Arctic states and organizations have not been so lucky. Member states have been reluctant to grant this status for a variety of reasons. Canada, for instance, has expressed concern, especially on the matter of indigenous populations. “As interest by non-Arctic players in the work of the Council grows, Canada will work to ensure that the central role of the Permanent Participants is not diminished or diluted,” read an official Canadian statement on Arctic foreign policy.

Evidence suggest that many non-members may be expressing interest in the Arctic in the hopes that melting Arctic ice-caps will clear the way for new trading routes and resource development like oil or mines. However, 95 percent of these resources are situated in the exclusive economic zones of each of the Arctic countries. In other words, any new Observers would not have access to these routes and resources.

The potential business opportunities in the Arctic region, promoted by the newly formed Arctic Economic Council, will most likely lead to an increase in Arctic regulation and agreements, where Observers hope to promote and protect their interests. “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it,” argues China’s Admiral Ying Zhuo. “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration, as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.”

Indeed, the aspiration of countries like China and India to become Arctic Council Observers reflects their ambitions to extend their influence far beyond their borders. Japan, South Korea, and Singapore also have trade interests in the region. For instance, Korea is the world’s leading shipbuilder, and Singapore is leading a major oil-rig construction project. Moreover, shortened trade routes would mean a trip from Yokohama, Japan to Rotterdam, Netherlands, usually 11,200 miles, would be reduced by half.

Business and trade factors are very important, but because of its environmental fragility, the Arctic must be handled with care. Environmental sustainability has drawn a lot of attention in the Arctic Council. “Over time, increased access to the Arctic will bring more traffic and people to the region. While mostly positive, this access may also contribute to an increase in environmental threats, search and rescue incidents, civil emergencies, and potential illegal activities,” indicates Canada’s official statement. Rising seas levels caused by the melting of the Arctic ice caps also threatens to flood major cities like Singapore, where the lowest level for the construction of new buildings has been recently raised to 2,25 meters above the highest tide.

In short, the Arctic Council is drawing greater and greater attention from non-member countries and organizations. Though many argue their motivations are pure—scientific and environmental—most are motivated by economic and business opportunities. Of course, their fate hangs in the hands of eight Arctic nations, which are currently debating the role non-Arctic states can and should play in shaping the future of the region.



Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of NASA]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.