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Iceland's flags are seen in souvenir shop in Reykjavik January 27, 2009.INTS KALNINS/Reuters

China, India and big oil will all be welcome at a new circumpolar forum launched Monday by Iceland's President Ólafur Grímsson in a move that seems certain to irk some northern nations.

The Arctic Council – the group that includes Canada and the seven other circumpolar countries – has been grappling with a slew of demands for participation from China, India and other non-northern nations. Now the launch of the Arctic Circle, which Mr. Grímsson announced on the same day Iceland became the first western nation to sign a free-trade pact with China, will be seen as complicating, if not challenging, the primacy of the Arctic Council in the rapidly changing north.

The Arctic Circle forum will be open to all. "Google is interested," Mr. Grímsson said during a launch speech at the National Press Club in Washington, adding so too were those countries, such as France, currently frustrated by being relegated to non-speaking observer status at the Arctic Council.

"We want to be an open tent or a public square," Mr. Grímsson said, in a pointed reference to the limited membership and governmental Arctic Council that critics regard as exclusive and unwelcoming. "We hope to foster a new type of dialogue," he said, starting in October when the first gathering of the Arctic Circle opens in Iceland's capital Reykjavik.

Canada, which takes over the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Council next month, now faces a new and more complicated political landscape as well as a fast-melting Arctic which has spawned massive interest in resource extraction, new shipping lanes and much jockeying for sovereignty.

"China is already building ships" for the shortcut through the Arctic that will shave off as much as 40 per cent of the distance to markets in Europe and the Americas, said Mr. Grímsson. Meanwhile, Singapore is looking for "seaport in the Arctic," he added, predicted that ice-free summers would reshape global trade like the Panama Canal did when it opened a century ago.

Mr. Grímsson was careful to say that the Arctic Circle wasn't intended as a rival or replacement for the Arctic Council. But just as Davos – the high-profile annual gathering of political and business leaders, celebrities and NGOs – often eclipses the more staid and official fora, it's clear that the Arctic Circle is intended as a high-profile, dynamic conference where India and Google and Greenpeace – and countless others with a stake in the Arctic – need not wait for years hoping they may be allowed to speak.

"China has a legitimate reason" to be interested in what's happening in the Arctic, Mr. Grímsson said. Iceland and the Nordic countries have backed the inclusion of China and other major players at least as observers at the Arctic Council, while Russia, Canada and the United States have been less enthusiastic.

With the chairmanship of the Council shifting first to Canada – with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq at the helm – and then to the United States for the following two years, the Arctic Circle may also emerge as a forum were Europeans and others enjoy a higher profile.

Mr. Grímsson also suggested that the newly formed Circle could bring together rivals in a way that might foster further co-operation.

"India and China don't operate in dealing with the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas but they seem to want to work together with the melting that's going on in my part of the world," Mr. Grímsson said.

On the Arctic Circle's newly launched website, the group made clear that it intends to play a major role. "We aim to strengthen the decision-making process by bringing together as many Arctic and international partners as possible under one large, open tent … (and) by facilitating circumpolar meetings of leaders across disciplines, we will identify truly sustainable development practices for the Arctic, the world's last pristine environment."

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