Norway to freeze China out of the Arctic?

By Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

Relations have been frosty between Oslo and Beijing since October 2010, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded a jailed Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, that year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Is the two countries’ row now spilling over into the Arctic, a strategic region in which China has a growing interest?

China has been active in the Arctic for more than a decade. It conducted its first Arctic expedition in 1999, its Yellow River Station research base opened on Svalbard in 2004, and its Xue Long (Snow Dragon) ice breaker has visited the High North several times. Since 2007, it has been an ad hoc observer to the Arctic Council, which brings together the United States, Canada, Russia and the five Nordic nations in the only intergovernmental body to deal with the region.

But Beijing wants more, and has been applying for permanent observer status to the council. In early 2011 – even after the Nobel Prize quarrel – Norway was happy to support China in this bid. Although Beijing had broken off negotiations with Norway over a free-trade agreement, and Norwegian exports to China fell markedly after the Nobel Prize announcement, Oslo seemed prepared to point to the Nobel committee’s independence and to wait for relations to improve.

In late January, however, there was the hint of a turnaround, when a high-ranking diplomat suggested to Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper that Norway move might block Beijing’s application for permanent observer status unless China re-engaged with Norway.

As a permanent member, Norway has a veto in the council. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store appeared to contradict the Aftenposten report when he said on 14 February that: ‘Norway continues to support China’s application for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council. We hope to have a dialogue with China on this issue, as we have with other candidate countries.’ However, even this does not necessarily exclude dialogue as a prerequisite for permanent observer status.

So the Norwegian policy is uncertain. But even the mere threat of a veto elicited angry reactions from Denmark, which is interested in attracting Chinese capital to Greenland.

The Arctic is of growing interest to those outside it, not only because it is estimated by the US Geological Survey to hold about 22% of the planet’s hydrocarbon resources, but also because melting ice may open up new, shorter shipping routes. The EU, like China, is pushing for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, and is due to publish a fresh policy document this spring as part of a renewed diplomatic push. (When the Arctic considered new permanent members in 2009, Canadian objections to EU legislation meant that no bids were accepted.)

If Norway goes ahead and tries to block China’s bid – even in the face of pressure from fellow Arctic Council members – it will force China to choose to either keep up a public spat that isn’t particularly useful to it, or to move towards stronger influence in the Arctic.

China is planning its fifth Arctic expedition this year, and it will be difficult for it to reject dialogue with a council member while seeking closer ties to the council. On the other hand, now that the possibility of a veto has been made public it will be very difficult for China to back down without losing face. Beijing has now done all it can to pressure Norway after the Nobel Prize decision, and has limited leverage left over Oslo. The question is whether Norway has blocked off a potential new channel for dialogue with China with its hints of a veto.

While Norway may still throw its weight behind Chinese observer status, the spat demonstrates the geopolitical manoeuvring in this fast-changing region.

See a map of the overlapping sovereignty claims in the Arctic


One Comment on “Norway to freeze China out of the Arctic?”

  1. [...] rivals such as Russia and a number of NATO states, while rising powers such as China are increasingly interested in the Arctic shipping routes, there is scope for closer relationships in the Arctic. Share [...]

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