China should have a say in future of Arctic – Iceland president
Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says nations beyond the polar region should be involved in determining future of the far north
Iceland‘s president has called for an expanded role for China and other Asian countries in the future of the Arctic, arguing that the rapid melting of the summer sea ice was having effects far beyond the region.
In a visit to Washington, for the launch of a new global forum, the Arctic Circle, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said countries beyond the polar region deserved a say in determining the future of the far north.
“It is a wrong scenario to think that this will only be of concern to those people living in the Arctic. It will be a concern to every nation,” Grimsson said in an interview. “There is no country that will escape the consequences, either through rising sea levels or extreme weather patterns.”
With that in mind, Grimsson argued that oil companies and countries as far away as China, India, Singapore and South Korea should have a voice in the future of the region. At present, only the eight countries of the Arctic Council have a say in setting policy in the region. “We realise that there are other nations in Asia and Europe that have legitimate concerns and enterprises in the Arctic and it’s important to involve them in a co-operative effort,” Grimsson said.
He made his visit to Washington as Chinese and Icelandic leaders signed a free trade agreement in Beijing that will give China a bigger foothold in the emerging region.
Grimsson said Arctic Circle would aim for a more inclusive debate about the future of the Arctic.
Decisions on the development and the environment of the region are now the preserve of the eight countries involved in the Arctic Council: America, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden in addition to Iceland.
But Grimsson said it was important to involve other countries in deciding the future of the region, as it undergoes a rapid transformation due to climate change.
Last year produced a record melting of summer sea ice. A study published last week by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Arctic waters could be nearly ice-free by as early as 2020.
The retreat of summer sea ice has seen a push by oil and mining companies to drill in Arctic waters, and by Asian countries hoping to cut shipping routes. Environment campaigners on Monday planted a flag on the seabed at the north pole and demanded the region be declared a global sanctuary.
The new forum launched this week will hold its first gathering in Reykjavik in October and will be open to government officials, scientists and members of non-government organisations.
Grimsson described it as an “open tent”.
“I see it as a part of my responsibility to encourage a dialogue between the people who live in the Arctic and those who want to use the Arctic – to put it bluntly,” he said during a speech on Monday.
Grimsson told an audience at the National Press Club that in every meeting with Asian leaders this year, from China, South Korea, Singapore and India, his counterparts had sought observer status on the Arctic Council.
China, South Korea, and Singapore are exploring new shipping routes across the pole. The polar route would cut about two weeks off the average shipment time between northern Europe and Asia.
China has sought permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, the group of eight northern countries that sets policy in the region.
Grimsson indicated support for the move, saying outside influence over the Arctic was inevitable. “With the accelerating melting of the Arctic Sea ice we will have an open ocean there that anyone with a vessel could get into according to international law,” he said.
China sent an ice breaker through the Arctic last year, and was already building Arctic-capable ships, he noted.
“The big question is whether we will catch up with our decision making and our dialogue and our form of co-operation before acceleration of melting sea ice created a completely new playing field.”