China seeks observer status with the Arctic Council

A model of the Chinese icebreaker Xue long.

China is not a country typically associated with the ice and snow of the High North, but that could soon change.


For almost two decades, the Arctic Council has been a select club of northern nations that works with a handful of indigenous groups and European observer states to deal with issues north of the 66th parallel.

But at next week’s meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, the Arctic Council will decide whether to grant observer status to China and a handful of other non-Arctic countries including India and South Korea.

Observer status allows countries to be more involved in Arctic Council activities and have a greater voice in Arctic issues while non-member countries can only attend meetings and participate in working groups.

It’s no secret that China would like to hold greater influence in the High North. Last year the country completed its first crossing of the Arctic Ocean with the icebreaker Xue long, or Snow Dragon. The crossing allowed the nation to explore a potential route that would slash the distance to northern Europe by more than 6,000 kilometers, compared with the traditional Suez shipping route.

China’s hardly the first non-Arctic nation to start looking north in recent years as severe reduction in Arctic sea ice has opened up possibilities of more resources to exploit and more ice-free shipping routes. And with growing interest in the Arctic come aspirations to help govern it.

Norway’s foreign minister Espen Barth Eide has said Norway is in favour of allowing more countries to participate in the Arctic Council. In March, he told reporters that “the argument for opening up for more observers in the Arctic Council is that they will then be a member of our club.”

“Then the danger of them forming their own club will be smaller.”

All of which means this is a key time for the Arctic Council.

Leiv Lunde, director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, tells the BarentsObserver that the Council is still a relatively new organization and one that is still evolving.

But as the Arctic continues to gain prominence on the world stage, Lunde says the Arctic Council “may become much more important, [as the Council] may decide they want to build it into something more significant.”

It’s still far from certain whether China and the other observer-state applicants will be granted a place on the Council. Some indigenous groups have raised questions about whether these new states will be as respectful of their rights as current Council members. In addition, Canada has raised objections about the European Union’s application to be an observer state because of the organization’s stance on seal hunting. Furthermore, it has been noted that the larger the Arctic Council becomes, the harder it will be to come to reach agreements amongst members.

But Lunde says that as the Arctic becomes increasingly important internationally, other countries need to be included in decision making.

“The Council risks becoming less relevant to the challenges of the Arctic if it’s building up a fence against the global players that are increasingly interested in the Arctic,” he says.

“If you have ambitions for the Arctic Council to be the most important Arctic institution, there’s no choice. You can’t keep it as a club for the eight Arctic countries.”