The Arctic Council agreed on Wednesday to admit emerging powers China and India as observers, reflecting growing global interest in the trade and energy potential of the planet's far north.
The organization, which coordinates Arctic policy, is gaining clout as sea ice thaws to open up new trade routes and intensify competition for oil and gas — estimated at 15 percent and 30 percent respectively of undiscovered reserves.
China has been active in the polar region, becoming one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and agreeing a free trade deal with Iceland. Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save its companies time and money. The council groups the United States, Russia, Canada and Nordic nations. Observer status gives countries the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.
China, Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Italy were granted observer status. A decision on the European Union's entry as an observer was deferred.
"Despite the varied interests we have heard today from the permanent participants, there is nothing that should unite us quite like our concern for both the promise and challenges of the northernmost reaches of the Earth," US Secretary of State John Kerry told the meeting in Sweden's northern town of Kiruna.
"The consequences of our nations' decisions do not stop at the 66th parallel," Kerry said, referring to the latitude of the Arctic Circle.
The council ruled the Europe Union could observe meetings until a final decision on its status was taken. EU-members France, Germany, Spain and Britain have observer status.
Diplomats said Canada and other Arctic states objected to an EU ban on imported seal products. Indigenous groups say they depend on the seal trade.
Russia has long been skeptical of letting in the European Union as an observer, arguing it has representation through its members Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
The late night meeting over whether to accept the observers was described as "tense" by one Western diplomat.
Indigenous groups have expressed concern the number of observers could dilute their voice as their traditional cultures are threatened by a possible influx of oil and mining projects.
A Chinese shipping firm is planning the country's first commercial voyage through a shortcut across the Arctic Ocean to the United States and Europe in 2013, saving time and money. The distance from Shanghai to Hamburg is 5,185 kilometers shorter via the Arctic than via the Suez Canal.
China already has mining links with Greenland and trade ties with Iceland. Greenland may have the world's biggest deposits of rare earths, used in smart phones and green technology.
"The entry of countries like China not only reflects how the Arctic has become a region of global interest, it also shows how the Arctic Council has become the main body of Arctic governance," said Damien Degeorges, founder of the Arctic Policy and Economic Forum.
The council also adopted an agreement to coordinate a response to potential spills that could result from increasing oil and gas exploration, including joint training exercises to deal with major accidents and ensuring there is equipment to deal with spills in place. The meeting also heard about the threat to the region's biodiversity. Summer temperatures are warmer than at any time in the past 2,000 years, threatening animals and plants, according to an Arctic Biodiversity Assessment report given to ministers.
"Arctic biodiversity is being degraded, but decisive action taken now can help sustain vast, relatively undisturbed ecosystems of tundra, mountains, fresh water and seas and the valuable services they provide," it said.