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Arctic Territory Up for Grabs Sparks China-Norway Tensions

Photo : AFP

Oslo, Norway: The last remaining privately owned parcel of land in the strategically significant Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic has become a focal point of contention, with China showing interest but Norway determined to retain control. Situated midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard has emerged as a geopolitical and economic hub amid escalating tensions between Russia and the West and the melting of Arctic ice.

For a price tag of 300 million euros ($326 million), prospective buyers can acquire the remote Sore Fagerfjord property in southwestern Svalbard. Spanning 60 square kilometers (23 square miles) - comparable in size to Manhattan - the estate comprises mountains, plains, a glacier, and approximately five kilometers of coastline, albeit lacking infrastructure.

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Per Kyllingstad, representing the sellers, notes that the Chinese have shown substantial interest in the Arctic and Svalbard, following China's 2018 white paper on the region. However, Norway, which governs Svalbard under a 1920 international treaty, aims to safeguard its sovereignty. While the treaty acknowledges Norwegian sovereignty, it permits citizens of all signatory nations, including China, to exploit the archipelago's resources.

Yet, Norway is wary of foreign ownership, particularly by China, given security concerns identified by Norwegian intelligence services. Consequently, Norway's Attorney General has instructed the owners - reportedly a company controlled by a Russian-born Norwegian - to halt the planned sale, citing the need for Norwegian authorities' approval.

The Norwegian state, owning 99.5 percent of Svalbard, designates most of the land as protected areas, where construction and motorized transport are prohibited. However, the sellers contest this, citing the 1920 treaty's equal rights clause. While the economic value of the Sore Fagerfjord land is minimal, owning land in Svalbard could hold strategic importance in the future, according to experts.

This latest episode echoes Norway's previous efforts to thwart potential Chinese acquisitions on Svalbard, including the 2016 acquisition of the penultimate piece of private land near Longyearbyen and negotiations for Sore Fagerfjord, which collapsed over pricing. Trade and Industry Minister Cecilie Myrseth reiterates the possibility of state intervention if realistic terms are presented, underscoring Norway's commitment to maintaining control over its Arctic territories.

May 17, 2024 5:07 p.m. 439

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