Anger Over Nobel Peace Prize Stalling Beijing’s Admission to Polar Group
China wants a bigger say in the Arctic, where thinning ice is opening faster trade routes to Asia in a region that could hold 20 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas.
But its condemnation of Norway for Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel peace prize has some Scandinavians questioning Beijing’s temperament to join an Arctic Council that is more about collegiality than confrontation.
China lashed out at Norway following Liu’s 2010 award, suspending talks on a free trade agreement, snubbing visiting diplomats, and imposing new import controls on Norwegian salmon.
Oslo reported Beijing to the World Trade Organization over the fishing dispute. But otherwise, it tried to work quietly to resolve the tensions, stressing the independence of the Nobel committee. With little appreciable progress, Norway is now speaking out about China’s application to join the Arctic Council as a permanent observer next year.
In principle, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere says Norway favors accepting new observers in 2013 — But with two conditions.
The first is codifying the difference between full members — Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland — and the role of permanent observers, which currently include the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Poland, and Spain.
The second is respect for Arctic Council principles linked to the Convention of the Law of the Sea and the obligation to settle conflicts through consensus-based negotiation.
“For that to function, we need to have a very open dialogue with each of the member states and with each of the observer states,” Stoere says. “So each observer that would like to join should also pledge, in my view, to have an open political dialogue in the membership.”
“In the case of China, they would have to be ready to engage in an open and transparent political dialogue with all the member states of the Council, including Norway. And when I say that, it is because that is today not an obvious thing.
“The political dialogue between Norway and China for the last one and a half years has been at a pretty low level,” Stoere says, “Not of our choice but of their choice, linked to their dissatisfaction with the decision of the Nobel committee.”
“For this Arctic governance structure to work, political dialogue is absolutely necessary to deal with common interests and diverging interests,” the Norwegian foreign minister concluded.
Russia and Canada share concerns about greater Chinese influence in the Arctic, as do some of the indigenous peoples represented on the Arctic Council.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Song Tao says Beijing hopes to “cooperate with relevant countries like Sweden and Iceland on issues of peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic.”
Denmark sees new supplies of oil, iron ore, and rare earth minerals in melting Greenland ice, and China is a primary market. The Danish ambassador to China, Friis Arne Peterson, says China has “natural and legitimate economic and scientific interests in the Arctic.”
With as much as $9-trillion dollars in oil and minerals at stake, Gunhild Hoogensen Gjorv, a political scientist at the University of Tromso, says energy security is now the leading driver of polar relations.
“Everyone is interested in moves that China is making,” she says. “For such a long time, the north has been ignored. It has been that cold spot up there. There is clearly a deeper appreciation now that the Arctic is a region that has global consequences.”
With only 2 percent of exports going to China, Gjorv says Norway is better positioned than most small countries to withstand Beijing’s considerable influence.
“From the Norwegian perspective, it puts Norway in a rather powerful position because such a powerful country wants to have this sort of position” on the Arctic Council, she says.
Given the increase of pollutants in the Arctic, both from Asia and from the Atlantic Gulf Stream, Gjorv says better protecting the region means working with growing industrial economies.
“China is really interested,” she says. “We should be interested about them being here too to be part of a regime-building system where more and more countries are on side to create regulations that will protect this region.”
Norwegian Foreign Minister Stoere says the attention generated by China’s application to the Arctic Council shows “the emergence of a region which used to be frozen both politically and climatically, and now there is a thaw.”
“Fifteen years ago, the challenge of the Arctic Council was that nobody knew about it,” he says. “Today its challenge is that there are so many who would like to work with it, which is a good development.”