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Kiruna, Sweden (AFP) May 15, 2013
The Arctic Council, at a meeting Wednesday in northern Sweden, granted permanent observer status to China and six others, in a powerful signal of the polar region's growing international importance.
Foreign ministers of the eight-member council, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, made the decision at a biennial gathering, which took place in the town of Kiruna.
The other countries given permanent observer status were India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, adding to the geographic reach of the once-obscure group which promotes cooperation on environmental protection, oil and mineral exploitation, shipping, tourism and fishing.
"It strengthens the position of the Arctic Council on the international scene," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who chaired the meeting.
The Arctic Council received an application for permanent EU observer status "affirmatively", but deferred a final decision on the issue.
"It will be implemented once certain questions have been tackled, but the decision means that the EU already now can act as an observer," Bildt's spokesman Erik Zsiga told AFP.
The nature of the Council's reservations were not disclosed.
But Canada, which took over the Arctic Council chairmanship on Wednesday, is known to be at loggerheads with the EU over a European ban on products derived from the seal hunt, which the EU says is conducted using inhumane methods.
Permanent observers have no voting rights in the Council, but unlike ad hoc observers they are automatically invited to the group's meetings.
"It signals openness, and it reflects the fact that many countries outside the Arctic area also have legitimate interests in the development of the region," Danish Foreign Minister Villy Soevndal said in a statement.
Rising temperatures have boosted international interest in the polar region, as melting ice causes transport routes to open up and makes hitherto inaccessible mineral resources easier to exploit.
The Arctic is believed to hold some 90 billion barrels of oil and 30 percent of the world's yet-to-be discovered natural gas resources.
"When it comes to Singapore for example it is very clear that it is shipping issues they are interested in, the same thing is true for India," Bildt told Swedish Radio.
China has opened an Arctic research centre in Norway's far north Svalbard region, and in mid-2012 the first Chinese ice breaker travelled from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Arctic along the Russian coast, a 40 percent shorter route to Europe.
"China values the scientific research and environmental protection (work) of the Arctic Council," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists in Beijing on Wednesday, before the council announced taking on China as a permanent observer.
"(It) has always supported the principles and purposes of the Arctic Council," he said.
Bildt said yet more countries were lining up to apply for observer status, including Turkey and Mongolia.
Global warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere on the planet, Bildt noted.
"The changing climate... creates new opportunities, not least for the Arctic states," he said.
"These, however, are also fraught with new challenges, and threats that must be confronted."
The Arctic Council is composed of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. A total of 13 countries now hold observer status, after Wednesday's decision.
Meanwhile, Greenland boycotted Wednesday's meeting after Sweden refused to accept its representatives on an equal footing with other members, its prime minister said.
"Until Sweden took over the chairmanship in 2011, Denmark had three chairs at the table with a representative for each part of the Danish Commonwealth," Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond told Greenland daily Sermistiaq.
Arctic Greenland, along with the Faeroe Islands, is part of the Danish Commonwealth. Under a home rule agreement with Denmark, Greenland has full control of its raw materials and internal affairs, while decisions on defence and international affairs reside with Denmark.
"When the Swedes took over, the commonwealth was only given one chair and Greenland and the Faeroe Islands had to sit behind and not directly in the negotiations," Hammond added, saying she feared that a new Canadian chairmanship would adopt the same principle.
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