As the chairmanship of the Arctic Council was transferred from Sweden to Canada last month, a decision was announced that alters the nature of the intergovernmental forum and raises questions about its future direction.
On May 15, the eight member states and six permanent participants of the Arctic Council granted six non-Arctic states permanent observer status: China, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore, and Italy.
The admittance of six states that are geographically removed from the Arctic has raised concerns that the council's core values of environmental protection and sustainable development will be diluted. Although observers on the council do not have voting rights, they do have the ability to make proposals and influence policy. The influence of a state the size of China, even if in an observer role, might have the potential to sway the agenda.
Much of the concern is driven by the belief that the energy demands of rising economic superpowers, notably China and India, will have deleterious environmental impacts. The rapidly warming Arctic has massive economic potential. It contains an estimated 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves and 30 per cent of undiscovered gas deposits, in addition to large amounts of minerals and rare metals. With so much potential wealth on the table, there may be a rush to exploit these resources and it is conceivable that rapid development could trump responsible development.
But rather than shying away from dialogue with these non-Arctic states over fears of what they might do, the council should engage them constructively as observers in the ongoing discussions. There are three important benefits to this strategy.
First, the inclusion of major international actors enhances the reputation of the council as a legitimate international governance forum. Environmental protection and sustainable development are broad goals that require co-operation from all states, not just those directly bordering the Arctic. The international waters of the Arctic Ocean will be developed by Arctic states as well as non-Arctic states. If the latter states cannot participate in the Arctic Council, they likely will pursue their interests via other organizations or act individually. Such a non-uniform approach to development would be detrimental to both the environment and northern communities.
Second, observers are expected to contribute financially to council projects and research. The economic capacity of the recently admitted states, especially China, means they can provide funding that will strengthen the ability of the council to fulfil its mandate. Additionally, there is little chance of observers gaining undue influence through financial contributions, as the council's expectations for permanent observers clearly states that "financial contributions from observers to any given project may not exceed the financing from Arctic states."
Third, high-level participation in the council empowers it to pass more effective policy. All resolutions are non-binding outside of the eight member states, so it is important to have the implicit support of highly influential countries for a resolution to be heeded. For example, if an agreement on sustainable fishing in the Arctic were adapted, it would carry much more weight if supported by Japan and China.
Although there are clear benefits to expanding observer membership, the council should proceed with caution in this area. The criteria on which aspiring observers are judged is clearly defined and articulated by the member states. If stringently adhered to, it will ensure the values of observers are consistent with those of the council.
More voices at the table can enhance discussions and empower decisions, but they can also deflect attention away from the council's stated goals. The Arctic Council is meant to represent the interests primarily of the Arctic states and their indigenous populations; this must not be lost sight of as observer states assert their interests.
Andrea Charron is assistant professor and deputy director of University of Manitoba's Centre for Defence and Security Studies. Richard Farthing-Nichol is a student who won a grant to study the Arctic with Charron this summer.