BEIJING (Reuters) - China has legitimate economic interests in the Arctic, Denmark's ambassador said on Friday, welcoming partnership with Beijing in the rapidly thawing polar region but adding that a possible resource rush would come with obligations.
With climate change linked to melting ice caps in the Arctic, the prospect of untapped hydrocarbons, fishing grounds and new summer shipping lanes has whetted China's appetite for polar research and exploration capabilities.
China doesn't have any Arctic coastline, like Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States, but it will be keen to cooperate with those countries and have access to the process of designing any new rules at the pole.
China has "natural and legitimate economic and scientific interests in the Arctic", Ambassador Friis Arne Petersen told a group of journalists, adding that Denmark and other nations welcome China as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council.
"The Danish government would like to see China as a permanent observer, and I think the others (members) are likewise willing to do that," he said.
China has applied to become a permanent observer in the forum -- a role that would not give it voting rights like the eight member states -- but the application is still pending.
"There are rights and obligations, and of course China needs to observe those obligations to become an observer," he said, referring to ecologically safe development and recognition of existing territorial claims over most of the region.
Permanent council members are Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, the United States, and Norway.
The Arctic is thought to hold more than 10 percent of the world's undiscovered oil reserves, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas reserves, and large mineral deposits.
Most known resources there lie within countries' exclusive economic zones, an area 200 nautical miles within their coastlines.
"It could, therefore become a rush for resources, for oil for gas, for minerals," Petersen said. "All of the international actors that would like to participate in that rush should of course abide by the highest international standards," he said.
But Petersen said there is a tendency to overlook how much of the Arctic is already spoken for under international law.
"We try to take it in a perspective of how much is already regulated by national jurisdiction and special laws, and therefore ... to prevent expectations for the use of these resources," he said.
Resources aside, access to shortened shipping passages could be critical for China, the world's top exporter.
A 2010 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said China had been treading lightly with its Arctic policy, fearful of fueling worries over the country's rapid economic rise and growing military might.
China is planning three Arctic research expeditions from 2011 to 2015, Chinese state media have said. It also plans to build a new 8,000-tonne icebreaker for launch by 2013, a companion to its current Ukrainian-built vessel, Xuelong or Snow Dragon.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)