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Japan, China and South Korea are seeking to expand their influence in the Arctic as melting ice caused by global warming offers potentially lucrative access to resources and shipping shortcuts in the region.

Asia’s biggest economies are among 14 applicants seeking observer status on the eight-nation Arctic Council, which holds its biennial ministerial meeting in Sweden on May 15. Member countries include the U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.

Winning approval would mean greater sway in international discussions over a region estimated to contain 90 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. With climate change resulting in an Arctic that will be almost...

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