By Patricia Zengerle
KIRUNA, Sweden (Reuters) - The Arctic Council agreed on Wednesday to admit China and other Asian nations 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 whether to grant the European Union observer status 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," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the meeting in Sweden's northern town of Kiruna.
(Additional reporting by Alister Doyle and Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Janet Lawrence)