Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic
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Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic

Edited by Leif Christian Jensen and Geir Hønneland

The Arctic has again become one of the leading issues on the international foreign policy agenda, in a manner unseen since the Cold War. Drawing on the perspectives of geo-politics and international law, this Handbook offers fresh insights and perspectives on the most pressing issues, grouped under the headings of political ascendancy, climate and environmental issues, resources and energy, and the response and policies of affected countries.
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Chapter 19: How we learned to stop worrying about China’s Arctic ambitions: understanding China’s admission to the Arctic Council, 2004–2013

Matthew Willis and Duncan Depledge


In 2004, the Chairman of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization for Arctic states and peoples few in the wider world had then heard of, travelled to Beijing to meet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Gunnar Palsson, the Icelander who had chaired the SAOs’ meetings since 2002, had been a vigorous promoter of the Arctic Council throughout his tenure. On trips to New York, Paris, Rome and even Nairobi – wherever the United Nations had an office – he had advertised the work of the Council and, especially, the leading role it was playing in raising awareness of climate change through the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). The message he was trying to communicate, on behalf of the Council members, was unambiguous and direct: the Arctic mattered to the rest of the world, and countries not in the Arctic needed to pay attention. Palsson used the visit to Beijing to push the Council’s aims of sensitizing non-Arctic countries to climate change and engaging them on environmental policy, but the meeting also had a more specific purpose. In 2002, China was the second-highest emitter of CO2 after the United States (The Guardian 2011). The imperative to engage it on Arctic climate change was therefore strong.

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