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Exclusive: As China leads in the Arctic, Iceland’s president looks to U.S.

By Deborah Zabarenko | 21 September 2012

GIRDWOOD, Alaska – Climate change makes interesting allies, and one new pairing is China and Iceland, a tiny island nation located at the Atlantic gateway to the fast-melting, resource-rich Arctic.

Iceland’s president Olafur Grimsson.

Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, can sound a bit bemused by the growing relationship, but he knows one reason for it: the newly open shipping lanes in the Far North that could mean getting from Asia to western Europe in days, not weeks.

“I find it almost a wakeup call for the rest of the world to reflect on why it is that my small country, an island in the north Atlantic, is now so actively engaged with China that I have almost every year a meeting with either the prime minister or president of China,” Grimsson said in a Reuters interview.

This puts him in what he called the strange position of having more discussions with top Chinese officials about the Arctic “that we should be having with our counterparts in the United States.”

If the United States does not accept its “obligation” and “traditional role” to lead in this quickly opening part of the world, Grimsson said, it will have to react to what “Russia and the other Arctic countries, and non-Arctic countries like China and North Korea are proposing.”

Iceland may be a small country, but Grimsson is no pushover. Looking every bit the senior European leader, from his white hair and wire-rim glasses to his diplomat’s suits, he caught global attention when he refused to sign an agreement to repay some $5 billion to Britain and the Netherlands after Iceland’s top banks failed in 2008. In July, he overwhelmingly won re-election to an unprecedented fifth term as president.

China shares Iceland’s concerns about increased traffic and commerce in the Arctic, made possible by the summer thawing of sea ice, which hit a new record low extent this year, largely as a result of climate change spurred by human activities.

As the world’s biggest emitter of climate-warming greenhouse gases, mostly from coal-fired power plants, China is also scouring the world for alternative energy, especially renewable energy, and wants to tap Iceland’s expertise in the use of geothermal power, Grimsson said.

ARCTIC THAW AND FREEZING RAIN

But there is a different connection between the two countries, he said: a recognition that the melting of ice in the Arctic and the Himalayas has a direct connection to social and economic potential in China and around much of the globe.

Chinese scientists, Grimsson said, draw a line between the Arctic thaw and weather patterns in China, including damaging freezing rain in southern China in the winter of 2007-08. They also note that the waning of Himalayan glaciers has a profound impact on China’s water supply.

One eye-opener for Grimsson came during a 2011 visit to the mountainous Chinese province of Yunan, where he said three or four of 12 glaciers had completely disappeared. On a tour with officials from China’s foreign ministry, Grimsson said he was struck by an appeal made by a local leader.

The local leader spoke after several villages in the area had been abandoned because their traditional water system “which was almost a cultural and historical landmark, was being threatened in a fundamental way,” he said.

“There we were standing on a bridge, high up on the mountain, and she as eloquently as anybody from our part of the world concerned about the melting of the ice, was urging the leadership of China to pay attention to what was happening to her people,” Grimsson said. “She did this … in front of all the official diplomatic officials who were accompanying me.”

The message he took from this encounter was that China’s leaders shared these concerns.

LOOKING FOR SEATS AT THE ARCTIC TABLE

China isn’t the only non-Arctic country looking for a seat at the Arctic table, though it is the biggest.

The eight Arctic nations — the United States, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia — are members of the Arctic Council, set up in the 1990s as an informal venue for consultation.

“Nobody at that time realized that in the first two decades of the 21st century, the Arctic would become one of the major areas of global concern,” Grimsson said.

Now China, Singapore, India and the European Union all want observer status at the Council.

In another new move, China this summer sent its research icebreaker Xuelong across the Northern Sea Route north of Russia from Shanghai to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, the first time a Chinese ship has made this voyage. When the crew arrived, they got a “class photo” with Grimsson.

Iceland’s experience with geothermal energy has piqued China’s interest, and Grimsson said an agreement between Sinopec Corp., the Chinese energy giant, and Iceland’s Orca Energy could make China “within this decade the paramount geothermal country in the world.”

China has an institute of polar studies in Shanghai and a Tibetan Plateau Institute in Beijing, Grimsson said, and both focus on the consequences of melting ice due to climate change, in the Himalayan glaciers which feed China’s rivers, and in the Arctic.

Russia is also getting more involved, requiring mandatory Russian escorts for vessels crossing the Arctic between Europe and Asia. Five years ago, a Russian submarine planted a flag on the sea bottom beneath the North Pole, staking a symbolic claim to resources there and sparking what has been dubbed a new cold war as other countries, including the United States, rush to determine rights to the Outer Continental Shelf.

A CHANGING POLAR “BALLGAME”

Grimsson has met repeatedly with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior officials from China, as well as with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Icelandic leader said he talked with Hillary Clinton when she was a U.S. senator but less frequently during her time as secretary of state.

“The growing involvement of Russia, of China, and of other nations in Asia has changed the nature of this ballgame,” he said, speaking outside the sessions of the non-governmental Arctic Imperative Summit outside Anchorage.

The United States, he said, is not playing a leading role, though he hopes it will: “I don’t think the United States will miss the boat (in the Arctic), but it needs to be very active on board.”

China has a Nordic Arctic Center in Shanghai and a Tibetan Plateau Institute in Beijing, Grimsson said, reflecting the Chinese interest in what the Icelandic leader calls “the ice-dependent world”: the Arctic, Antarctica and the Himalayan watershed, including much of Asia.

The United States has one of the world’s premiere polar research institutes — the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Colorado — but on policy, Grimsson said, Washington has been focused elsewhere. That could be a problem as major shipping nations including China, South Korea, Singapore and others look north, he said.

“I think that’s a general problem with the United States, not just with the Arctic, that somehow the political system in this country … there’s a limited number of issues that can be dealt with at the same time.”

The United States could show its c

ommitment to this new global interest in the Arctic by having the U.S. president host an Arctic summit in Alaska during the next White House term, Grimsson said.

Topics

Climate and Energy

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