China Knocks on Iceland's Door

By Einar Benediktsson; Thomas R Pickering | International Herald Tribune, March 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

China Knocks on Iceland's Door


Einar Benediktsson; Thomas R Pickering, International Herald Tribune


As polar ice recedes, Iceland has become a strategic gateway to energy sources and new trade routes -- and Beijing is showing its interest.

Iceland's long-isolated existence was broken by World War II and the Cold War when its strategic location at the gateway to the North Atlantic and the Arctic were key to the defense of NATO and the United States. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union the island country seemed again to pass into irrelevance, and in 2006 the last American military aircraft were withdrawn from the Keflavik Air Base. Now the situation is changing again, as the melting north polar ice opens new ocean routes and access to vast natural resources.

According to a 2008 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey, 13 percent of all the unexploited oil, 30 percent of natural gas and 20 percent of the natural gas liquid resources are located under the seabed of the Arctic. Iceland is an ideal location to base ocean research, drilling and support for extraction and transport. The shrinking polar ice also introduces a revolutionary change in ocean transport between Asia and Europe -- the Northeast Polar Passage would reduce transport costs by as much as 40 percent as compared with the traditional route via the Suez Canal.

Once again, Iceland has become a strategic gateway, and among the nations that are showing a growing interest in the country is China. The time has come for the United States to strengthen its relationship with Iceland.

With the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008, five member states of the Arctic Council -- the United States, Canada, Denmark-Greenland, Norway and Russia, joined by Iceland, Sweden and Finland -- declared their jurisdictional rights in the Arctic Region under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Though Iceland is not regarded as a coastal state in the North Polar region, it lies in the Arctic and has recognized exploitation rights on the potentially mineral-rich coastal shelf of the Jan Mayen Island under a 1981 bilateral agreement with Norway.

Although China has not stated an official policy on the Arctic, it is not likely to support the unilateral decisions of the Arctic Council. The polar sea route is of major importance to the world's leader in manufacturing. And China has made a major effort in recent years to acquire access to mineral and energy resources in many parts of the world. Chinese public institutes and scholars have maintained that Arctic maritime routes and seabed riches should be for the use of all mankind.

China has also begun to court Iceland to help get access to the Arctic Council. Last year, Iceland was the first stop on an official European tour by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and a large Chinese delegation. And when the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong paid a call on Iceland, the crew was received by President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at his residence. …

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