Significant changes in the Arctic are attracting worldwide attention, often to the discomfort of Arctic states and peoples. East Asian interests in Observer status in the Arctic Council and in Arctic shipping, fishing, and resource exploitation have been the target of particular suspicion. Nevertheless, the decision made today by Arctic member states and permanent participants (indigenous representatives) at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden to grant Observer status to China, Japan, and South Korea should be welcomed. Bringing Asian countries into the Arctic tent, if only to integrate them to the Arctic way of governance, is the appropriate course of action for the Council to take. As the region becomes more accessible and the Arctic Council grapples with the emerging challenges of oil spill prevention and other risks, China, Japan, and South Korea will be among those countries expected to follow the rules. These countries don’t need the Arctic Council to pursue their interests, but they have been pushing for access. The choice to include them will strengthen the centrality of the Arctic Council in circumpolar governance.

The Arctic Council is a unique institution wrestling with growing international attention to its activities. Although widely considered the primary multilateral forum for addressing regional governance questions confronting Arctic states and inhabitants, until last year the Council had yet to formulate a coherent plan to incorporate the interests of non-Arctic states and organizations. Consequently, Japan, South Korea, and China, which have been ad hoc Observers since 2009, have had good reason until now to view the group as an exclusive club that seeks to monopolize the governance of Arctic issues.

By virtue of their geographic location and export oriented economic models, China, Japan, and South Korea tend to view Arctic issues similarly. All three states justify their Arctic interests in global terms: climatic events in the Arctic affect the Earth’s climate, which in turn dictates weather patterns in East Asian countries. All of these countries also boast advanced polar research programs (based primarily in Antarctica) that include world-class icebreaker capabilities. Moreover, all are aware that year-round shipping through the Northern Sea Route and other Arctic routes could bring global shifts in transportation and logistics, with direct effects on Northern waters and communities.

The Arctic Council is not the central authority through which states pursue their maritime interests. East Asian scholars are quick to point out that other global and regional organizations, such as the International Maritime Organization, the International Arctic Science Committee, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, and the United Nations Environment Programme, have competencies that fall outside of the Council’s mandate. For example, Arctic shipping standards are being negotiated at the International Maritime Organization. Investment in the burgeoning Arctic resources sector is negotiated directly with Arctic countries interested in attracting foreign investment. In short:  East Asian Arctic interests do not necessarily involve the Arctic Council, and they can assert their influence and achieve many of their goals without participating in it.

Therefore, it is appropriate for the Arctic states and northern peoples to have granted Asian states ongoing access to the Arctic Council for three reasons. First, Arctic states can now expect East Asian countries to comply with a forthcoming Arctic Council agreement on oil spill prevention and any potential instruments for fisheries management. Although these agreements are implemented through domestic laws, it is more likely that East Asian states will voluntarily comply with these agreements now that they will be input in the decision making process. 

Second, inclusion will help enmesh non-Arctic countries into Arctic ways of thinking. Few East Asian policymakers are well versed in the nuances of the indigenous internationalism that makes the Arctic Council unique in world politics. The deferral of the EU’s application for Observer status is instructive in this regard. Furthermore, East Asian governments may not understand the legal relationship between indigenous peoples and their national governments. The presence of eight transnational permanent participants in the Arctic Council ensures that local concerns are high on the agenda even as global forces are dramatically transforming the region. If new observers are not included in the Arctic Council, they can pursue their Arctic interests elsewhere without considering local concerns.

Third, although the formal role of an Observer in the Arctic Council is limited, East Asian countries bring considerable financial, scientific, and legitimating capacity to the Council’s working groups. Scientists from these countries are already eager participants in these groups, and integrating these countries into the Sustainable Development Working Group will likely prove to be a way to forge more constructive ties with the indigenous organizations, and allow indigenous representatives to educate non-Arctic states on their perspectives and concerns.

On balance, inclusion is a better route to ensuring compliance with Arctic interests than exclusion. The Council’s decision today reflects the institution’s acknowledgment of this fact. As Chair of the Council for the next two years, Canada should work to ensure that these countries remain committed over the course to secure the Council’s pre-eminence for governance in the region. 

Canada should work to ensure that these countries remain committed over the course to secure the Council’s pre-eminence for governance in the region
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