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Push for Chinese membership of Arctic Council

NASA JPL, University of Alaska - Fairbanks

China and India should be granted entry to the intergovernmental council for Arctic issues, a leading group of policy experts has told Canada.

Canada takes over leadership of the Arctic Council in 2013, and granting observer status to China, India and other “non-Arctic powerhouses” should be a top priority, according to recommendations stemming from a conference organized by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program policy forum.

At present, the council consists of the eight Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) and six observer countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom). There are also six groups of indigenous peoples who hold ‘permanent participant’ status.

China and other nations such as South Korea have vastly increased their polar-research spending in recent years, and there has been much debate about whether they should be allowed to join the Arctic Council as observers (see Nature’s editorial, ‘Poles apart’).

Janice Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in Canada, said in a statement that if the council “chooses to shut out the voices of other global leaders it will jeopardize the Arctic Council as the pre-eminent forum for Arctic issues”.

One sticking point has been a fear from some of the indigenous groups that new players in the region may not have the same respect for their rights. In their recommendations to Canada, produced by a team of researchers, government representatives and indigenous people, the Munk-Gordon group tried to allay this fear by specifying that any candidate for observer status should “publicly declare” respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.

Among other recommendations are that the council work “urgently” towards finishing an oil-spill preparedness mechanism — seen as crucial with increasing oil exploration in the dangerous Arctic waters — and commission baseline studies of the fisheries in the region, which are increasingly being eyed for exploitation. There is also a recommendation that the council discuss easing visa restrictions on researchers, a source of frustration for many scientists (see ‘Scientific challenges in the Arctic: Open water‘).

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