In The Media

P. Whitney Lackenbauer: The world wants an Arctic in

by P. Whitney Lackenbauer

National Post
May 7, 2013

Ahead of Canada assuming chairmanship of the multi-national Arctic Council this month, the National Post presents a week-long series in which defence experts at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute offer advice on what Ottawa should do with this opportunity.

Arctic affairs are no longer the quiet preserve of the Arctic states. Once frozen in the geopolitics of the Cold War, the thawing region now commands international attention. The Arctic Council, a relaxed forum for dialogue and information sharing amongst Arctic states and representatives of indigenous groups (the permanent participants), now faces a deluge of new applicants for observer status.

China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Mongolia have joined with the European Union, Italy and various non-governmental organizations in seeking a more permanent place in the Council. The eight ministers from the Arctic states are expected to render their verdict on 14 of these applications in Kiruna, Sweden, next month.

But accepting new observers is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The real challenge will come in maintaining the current structure of the Council as new actors clamour for a say in scientific research, resource development, transportation, and regional governance more generally. The extent to which Arctic and Asian states’ interests currently conflict on Arctic issues is overblown in most popular media and scholarly accounts. Nevertheless, some Chinese commentators have indicated that they consider observer status as a foot in the door to leverage greater influence over time. Indian scholars, their ideas framed by a long history of Antarctic engagement, still conjure visions of an Arctic treaty system that would resemble the international regime governing the south polar continent. This overlooks the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the Arctic states, as well as perceptions of appropriate regional governance encapsulated in their national strategies and the Ilulissat declaration of May 2008.

A seat at the Arctic Council may serve as a symbol of prestige for Asian states in international affairs, but the practical benefits are less clear. After all, only Arctic member states and permanent participants have seats around the main Council table. The observers listen in on deliberations and speak when invited to do so, but generally operate on the sidelines. To secure even this access, however, they must meet a host of new criteria, including acknowledgment of Arctic states’ sovereignty and sovereign rights, respect for indigenous cultures, and support for the Council’s original objectives as a high-level forum to promote “co-operation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States … on common Arctic issues.”

Does this reality accommodate non-Arctic states’ rising ambitions and perceived “rights” in regional affairs? Some Asian voices suggest it does not. For example, political scientist Guo Peiquing of the Ocean University of China has recently encouraged his country not to join the Council, arguing that it can better assert influence through other bilateral and multilateral channels – without acquiescing to the Arctic states’ self-interested rules and agenda.

Alienating Asian states will feed perceptions that the Arctic countries view the region as a private backyard.

A case in point is the new Arctic Circle forum, announced last week by Icelandic president Olafur Grimsson hot on the heels of a new free trade agreement with China. His country’s well-documented courtship of China and its fear of exclusion by the “Arctic-5” coastal states underpin this announcement which may, ultimately, undermine the perceived role of the Arctic Council as the primary forum for international dialogue about the region.

With Asian states asserting growing weight in international affairs, the Arctic is already feeling the reverberations. The challenge for Canada as Arctic Council chair lies not in excluding Asian states from regional conversations, but in striving to educate non-Arctic interests about why the existing system of governance is appropriate and relevant. Alienating Asian states will feed perceptions that the Arctic countries view the region as a private backyard, dismissing international interests and simply dividing the spoils amongst themselves. Instead, Canada should work with its Arctic neighbours to foster a sense of Asian Arctic-mindedness that is sensitive to the region’s unique environmental and human attributes. During its chair, Canada must look at the region through global, regional and national lenses to ensure that its interests, those of the Council, and those of a growing array of interested stakeholders are balanced and maintained.

P. Whitney Lackenbauer is associate professor and chair of the department of history at St. Jerome’s University (University of Waterloo), Ontario, and a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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