China has an Arctic commercial and scientific partner in remote Iceland

In a remote valley near the Arctic Circle where the wind whips the coarse yellow grass, China and Iceland are preparing to look to the sky — and a shared future.

Construction workers are building a research facility to study the Northern Lights, whose spectacular streaks of color light up Iceland’s winter skies. Funded by China’s Polar Research Institute, the facility will house Chinese, Icelandic and international scientists when it opens next year.

This cement shell is a concrete achievement in the burgeoning relationship between the rising Asian superpower, population 1.37 billion, and this tiny North Atlantic island nation of 330,000 people. It may seem a lopsided friendship, but both countries perceive benefits…

“It is better to be a friend to everyone when you are small than be an enemy to anybody,” said Reinhard Reynisson, director of the nonprofit company building the Aurora Observatory.

Reynisson speaks with the confidence of a country that has weathered earthquakes, volcanoes, famine and financial meltdown since it was settled by Vikings in the 9th century…

Iceland was nudged in China’s direction by financial calamity. When the global credit crunch hit in 2008, Iceland’s banks — whose debts had ballooned to more than 10 times the country’s GDP — collapsed. Iceland’s currency nosedived, unemployment soared, and Iceland was forced to go the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for bailouts. It also began looking for new economic partners to help it rebuild — and China was willing.

In 2010, the two countries agreed currency swaps between Iceland’s krona and China’s yuan, and in 2013 they signed a free trade agreement — the first between China and a European country.

With Iceland’s support, China was granted observer status in 2013 at the Arctic Council, whose core members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United States and Iceland.

It also attends annual Arctic Circle Assemblies hosted by Iceland — gatherings of politicians, officials, scientists and businesspeople to discuss the future of the region…

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The colorful phenomenon is caused when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth’s magnetic field.

Scientists hope the observatory will help them learn about the interaction between the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field, which could help predict space weather…

Reynisson said the initial local skepticism about China’s intentions has faded.

Trade in commerce, ideas and science? Seems to me to be an example of the best kind of global cooperation. 21st Century foreign policy between nations with intense respect for long-lived culture.

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