LONDON – The United States, Russia and six other nations will hold an Arctic Council ministerial meeting Wednesday in Sweden and topping the agenda will be the question of whether to grant Japan, China and South Korea permanent observer status.
The meeting in Kiruna, northern Sweden, comes as countries increasingly look to the Arctic for its untapped oil, gas and rare earth deposits, and possibilities for new shipping routes and fishing grounds due to the rapidly melting ice.
Asian countries are particularly interested in new trade routes that could be opened in the region to drastically reduce the time needed to transport goods between Europe and Asia.
Japan applied for observer status in 2009. As part of its efforts to seek the status on the council, the Foreign Ministry created a new ambassadorial post in charge of Arctic affairs in March.
The council, which was launched in 1996 and serves as a body for international rule-making on the Arctic, is made up of the United States, Russia, Canada and five Nordic countries facing the Arctic.
India and Singapore are also seeking permanent observer status on the council in a bid to gain a foothold in Arctic affairs. China has been actively seeking such status by announcing large investments in the Nordic member states.
But there are concerns within the council over China’s growing clout, leaving it unclear how the observer status issue would be addressed during the meeting, as the council makes important decisions through consensus in principle.
Countries with observer status, while not having a say in the group in principle, can attend related meetings and grasp what is being discussed among council members.
Among the officials expected to attend the gathering are U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.