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The frozen world of the Arctic is warming up as a new frontier of the great power game for energy resources, with India, China and Japan seeking stakes in the ecologically and economically sensitive region.

The Asian powers have asked to be “permanent observers” in the Arctic Council of eight countries that have Arctic territory. But existing official members and direct Arctic stakeholders [1], including the United States and Russia, are not exactly jumping with joy about the idea.

The indigenous Arctic people though, like the Inuit, have said they have no objection to the Arctic Council being made more inclusive to the rest of the world, as long as the voice of the original inhabitants is not ignored. Recent scientific studies have established Asian ancestry of many of the Arctic tribes.

Canada, which will be the next Arctic Council chairman in 2013, heads the debate about admitting emerging powers like India, China and Brazil join the North Pole party. The issue was top of agenda at the two-day meeting of the Council on January 17 and 18. Over 15 nations participated in this second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference at Toronto, Canada, to decide the future of the Arctic.

The debate, becoming more inevitable and louder, is whether to continue reserving the Arctic region for countries with Arctic territory, or to share its vast resources with the rest of the world.

The Arctic – the region that is the land of the midnight sun, home to the polar bear, headquarters of Santa Claus, and stage to the greatest light show on Earth – the spectacular Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis [2] – spreads across 21 million square kilometers (8.1 million square miles) of land and 13 million square kilometers of icy seas.

This northernmost part of Earth looms in 21st century importance as a vast buried treasure of oil, gas, coal and minerals such as zinc and silver, as a key region for studying global warming, and as significant gateway for maritime trade between Asia, Europe and North America. Arctic sea lanes reduce distances by thousands of kilometers.

In particular, two crucial routes could dramatically increase Arctic shipping from the current annual average of about 15,000 vessels:

  • Canada’s Northwest Passage, north of Alaska, linking Japan to eastern Canada.
  • Russia’s Northeast Passage, between Greenland and Russia, connecting China to Europe. Called the Russian Northern Sea Route, this oceanic shortcut lopes off thousands of kilometers between Europe and Asia, compared to sailing through the Panama Canal.

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