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International relations

Arctic Council adopts first strategic vision for High North

But economic development expected to spark disputes over maritime routes

Foreign ministers of the eight-member Arctic Council adopted a strategic plan May 20 to promote sustainable development in the region. These nations include the U.S. and Russia, while Japan and China hold observer status.    © Reuters

BRUSSELS -- Foreign ministers from the eight Arctic Council nations adopted the forum's first strategic plan to combat climate change and promote sustainable economic development in the sensitive region during their meeting Thursday in Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.

The members, which include the U.S., Russia and Canada, outlined policy objectives through 2030 and agreed in the plan that "norms and standards that affect Arctic waters" need to be developed, as maritime activity increases with the melting of the ice.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attended the ministerial meeting for the first time. At the last biennial gathering, hosted by Finland in 2019, the council could not issue a joint declaration due to opposition from the Trump administration regarding phrases related to climate change.

The Reykjavik declaration issued this time reaffirmed the importance of "further developing sustainable economic growth in the Arctic."

But while the members agreed on the need for fast action to tackle climate change, differences linger on issues such as governance of the Northern Sea Route.

Previously ice-locked seas in the High North are opening to shipping as ice melts during the warmer months. The Northern Sea Route, a shortcut connecting Asia and Europe, is increasingly popular, with usage reaching an all-time high in 2020, according to Nord University in Norway.

Russia aims to enact rules such as having all foreign ships report passage through the Northern Sea Route in advance, but other countries oppose this effort.

U.S. President Joe Biden said in a speech Wednesday that longstanding maritime principles like freedom of navigation serve as a bedrock for the global economy and international security.

"When nations try to game the system or tip the rules in their favor, it throws everything off balance," he said. "That's why we are so adamant that these areas of the world that are the arteries of trade and shipping remain peaceful -- whether that's the South China Sea, the Arabian Gulf and, increasingly, the Arctic."

Biden said "disruptive actions of nations like China and Russia" have been a challenge.

The Arctic Council's other members are Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Finland, Iceland and Sweden. Japan, China and India take part as observers.

The Arctic is rich in resources. The United States Geological Survey estimates that the region holds 13% of the world's untapped oil and 30% of its natural gas. The Reykjavik declaration noted that the Arctic is becoming more accessible, and that this could provide opportunities for new and expanded economic activities. "Such activities should be sustainable and transparent," the declaration said.

The council's strategic plan through 2030 cites seven goals, including monitoring the impacts of climate change, cooperating on sustainable and diverse economic development as well as strengthening the forum itself. The nations vow to reduce emissions of soot and prevent marine pollution, in addition to introducing norms and standards to create a healthy Arctic marine environment.

The Arctic Council does not handle military or security issues. But economic development in the High North is closely connected to security. As specific goals are laid out ahead of the next ministerial meeting in 2023, experts predict tensions -- especially between the U.S. and Russia -- on issues such as sea routes.

China also is increasing its presence in the Arctic, pouring investment into natural resource projects in Greenland. Talks likely will intensify over creating new, comprehensive rules that govern development in the region.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states and Indigenous peoples on issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection. The secretariat is in Tromso, Norway.

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