How to Define an Arctic Stakeholder?

(Photo by Marc Lanteigne)

On 26 January, after more than two years of speculation, the government of China announced the publication of its first ever governmental White Paper (Chinese version here), on its Arctic engagement policies, following in the footsteps of its East Asian neighbours, namely Japan and South Korea, who have also released policy documents detailing their emerging Arctic interests. However, as the second-largest economy in the world and a rising global power, China is the largest ‘non-Arctic’ state to develop a comprehensive Arctic policy. When various strands of Beijing’s Arctic diplomacy began to appear after China became a formal observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, there was much speculation as to potential contents of a Chinese Arctic policy document.

What can now be confirmed is that despite its lack of Arctic borders, Beijing considers itself a significant Arctic actor, with Arctic interests extending well beyond strictly scientific diplomacy and now including a wide array of economic concerns as well as strategic areas. Moreover, the paper confirmed the Arctic would become one of the many components of China’s ever-expanding ‘Belt and Road’ trade initiative. Since last year, the Arctic, along with the Pacific Ocean, have been added to the Indian Ocean / Mediterranean regions as essential maritime trade passages for the Chinese economy.

Since Beijing began to clarify its emerging Arctic policies in the period both before and after becoming a Council observer, there were concerns raised in the international community that, despite its lack of polar geography, China was seeking to integrate itself into the region. The use of the term ‘near-Arctic state’ (jin beiji guojia 近北极国家) in Chinese studies and commentaries regarding the country’s Arctic policy did not reassure critics who were concerned that a revisionist policy in the region was being crafted. The White Paper, entitled ‘China’s Arctic Policy’ (Zhongguo de beiji zhengce 中国的北极政策) built on these ideas while reflecting Beijing’s need to walk a fine line [pdf] between on one hand being viewed as a challenger to current Arctic governance, and on the other being seen as a peripheral player in the region.

Beijing’s White Paper has received much scrutiny in the international press, but one critical voice was heard last week via an editorial in the conservative Japanese news service Yomiuri Shimbun. The piece argued that Beijing was seeking to develop its Arctic policy with an eye to expanding as a maritime power, especially since travel (shipping?) via the Arctic Ocean could significantly reduce transit times between Asia and other parts of the world.

However, also telling about the editorial was that it noted the eight Arctic states had ‘substantively monopolised rights and interests’ in the Arctic, and that with no international agreement in place in the region comparable to the Antarctic Treaty, it was Tokyo’s responsibility to further strengthen its Arctic policies to avoid being left behind. The article also stressed that ‘it is important to impose a check on exclusive moves by Arctic coastal countries’. In another article, a Japanese academic noted that the opening of the Arctic might permit China to move military vessels into the region, and that Japan should not ignore the Arctic while giving too much attention to the security situation in the East China Sea, which has a maritime border in dispute by Beijing and Tokyo.

Although China and Japan, along with South Korea, agreed to pool their resources in developing greater Arctic cooperation in scientific affairs during a Tokyo summit in June 2017, with a follow-up meeting scheduled to be held in China this year, there nonetheless remains the question of whether there may be competition in Northeast Asia over Arctic policy, especially as the far north’s economic potential, via shipping but also energy and resources, continues to grow.

China’s new Arctic White Paper, and the responses by other non-Arctic states including Japan, have added much to the quietly determined debates over how to best define an ‘Arctic stakeholder’ and the ideal balance of rights and responsibilities for non-Arctic states with Arctic policies, especially as the region opens up to greater economic development. The Arctic Council, given its central status as the most preeminent decision-making body in the region, will undoubtedly be called upon to contribute to the resolution of these issues.

According to the Council’s rules of procedure [pdf] regarding observers, implemented after much debate at the organisation’s Ministerial Meeting at Kiruna, Sweden in 2013, a non-Arctic state, (or international governmental or non-governmental organisation), is granted observer status upon consent of the member states, a decision also based on whether a given candidate can make positive contributions to the Council itself and recognises the sovereignty of the Arctic states, the Law of the Sea, and the status of regional indigenous peoples. Observers must also have ‘demonstrated their Arctic interests and expertise’.

In addition, observers are to make ‘relevant contributions’ through participation in the Council’s working groups. Above all, the primary role of the observers is of course to observe, but also participate in working groups and to produce statements and documents. The right to vote and the bulk of the decision-making capabilities, however, remain squarely with the ‘Arctic Eight’ member states. Although these rules have helped to better clarify the status of observers at a time when a new cohort of states, (China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea), was assuming that title, the overall question of the definition of an Arctic stakeholder remains.

With thirteen observer countries, (the latest being Switzerland, which joined last year), many of which like China are representing a high level of political and economic power outside of the Arctic, and more seeking to gain admission, can the Arctic Council’s current configuration adjust to the engagement of so many observer governments? Will there be future allowances made for observers to have different levels of rights and obligations within Arctic organisations?

Although many Arctic Council observer governments have sought to use various means to develop Arctic identities, (the Government of Britain for example defined the country as the Arctic’s ‘closest neighbour’ [pdf] in its 2013 Arctic policy paper, given the proximity of the Shetland Islands to the Arctic Circle), the question of Arctic identity, and the rights of non-Arctic states, has been especially pressing amongst the Council observers from Asia. China’s White Paper stated that while no non-Arctic country had claims to sovereignty in the Arctic, non-Arctic states did have the right to engage in scientific and economic activities in the region in accordance with international law. In addition to China and Japan, policymakers and specialists in India have also voiced questions [paywall] about the potential exclusion of non-Arctic countries from Arctic development.

Arctic Council members, especially Canada and Russia, have been wary of the possibility of some form of expanded Arctic organisation, which would allow non-Arctic states a greater degree of decision-making rights. The possibility of using an Antarctic Treaty model to govern the activities of both Arctic and non-Arctic states would be problematic not only due to state-level politics but also the challenge of defining Arctic boundaries and incorporating the concerns of indigenous populations.

Nonetheless, as the Arctic continues to grow as an international concern and should the region begin to develop greater economic, (and by association strategic), importance in the future due to the ongoing effects of climate change, many states outside of the Arctic may assume a degree of stakeholder status which would include a higher level of recognition. The issue of how best to balance the requirements of Arctic nations and peoples and the growing amount of scrutiny from actors further south is becoming more pressing, and must be addressed sooner rather than later.