Wednesday, 13 July 2011

India and the Arctic

The melting of the Arctic sea-ice is offering both opportunities and challenges for the international community. The opportunities accrue in the form of newfound oil and gas deposits, unexploited marine living resources and shorter shipping routes connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. The challenges arise from the adversarial impacts of the melting ice on the livelihoods of the peoples and communities of the Arctic, disturbance in the delicate marine biodiversity of the region and the shrinking of the permafrost (permanently frozen soil) that would release large volumes of greenhouse gases which could further aggravate global warming. The challenges also arise from competing territorial claims by the littoral (a region lying along a shore) states over the Arctic sea-ice, safety of shipping routes, restructuring of militaries to defend Arctic territory which have a major  geopolitical and geostrategic focus. At another level, several non-littoral states are exploring opportunities to get engaged in the evolving politico-economic-strategic dynamics of the Arctic region.

One intergovernmental group deliberating on the Arctic is the Arctic Council. Established in 1996, the Arctic Council is an intergovernmental group of Arctic states i.e. Canada, Denmark (Greenland and Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, the US and the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants. The Council ‘promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, on common Arctic issues, in particular issues  of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic’. However, it has no regulatory powers for compliance and enforcement mechanisms. The Council has provision for observer status for states and is open to (a) Non-arctic states; (b) inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, global and regional; and (c) non-governmental organizations. 

Research in the Arctic has been undertaken since long. In recent times China has taken the lead in research. Some Chinese scholars have openly advocated that their government must adopt proactive policies to understand the politico-strategic impact of the Arctic sea-ice melt and prepare for the ‘commercial and strategic’ opportunities that would arise.  It has also been argued that “any country that lacks comprehensive research on Polar politics will be excluded from being a decisive power in the management of the Arctic and therefore be forced into a passive position.”
India’s engagement in the Arctic dates back to nearly nine decades when it signed the ‘Svalbard Treaty’ in 1925. India has watched with interest the evolving climate change induced developments in the Arctic region. On July 30, 2007, India established a scientific research station Himadri at Ny Alesund which conducts its operations under the guidance of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. So far India has undertaken seven expeditions to the Arctic. It has also placed orders for a dedicated vessel for polar expedition which is expected to join the NCAOR in 2012.

The world is looking towards the Arctic as an arena of great opportunity. Further, the effects of ice-melt showcase the beginning of new politics in the Arctic region pivoting on resources and routes. The claimant states are beginning to take hardened positions due to economic and strategic interests. Non-Arctic states too are devising proactive policies for the Arctic by establishing scientific research stations, resource assessment and exploitation studies, acquisition of ice capable ships, northern sea-route transportation planning, and studies in Arctic politics, law and diplomacy.

The Arctic cannot be at the margins of India’s mental map and New Delhi must find its way to the center of the evolving Arctic order and issues which will challenge and define the High North politics in the 21st Century: oil and gas to ensure energy security, marine living and non-living wealth for resource security, new shipping routes shaping global trade patterns, great power competition and above all climate change, global warming and its consequences that will result in melting of sea ice and permafrost and impact on people and ecosystems even in the tropics.

It will be prudent for New Delhi to:  
(a) Forge relationships with the Arctic Council members and argue for a permanent membership of the Council by virtue of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. 
(b) Broaden cooperation with Nordic countries and establish bilateral dialogues and discussions to understand the evolving politico-strategic developments in the Arctic region.
(c) Engage in policy related research on  the politics of the ‘High North’ and formulate an ‘Arctic Strategy’.  
(d) Undertake Arctic resource assessment and exploitation studies. 
(e) Regular expeditions to the Arctic and consolidate scientific research. 
(f) Develop technological capability to exploit Arctic living and non-living resources.
(g) India is a strong advocate of global nuclear disarmament and can play a vital role in promoting the idea of a nuclear free Arctic. 

Arctic In News:
--Indian oil companies like ONGC are bidding for Arctic Oil.
5/7/11- Arcelor-Mittal  plans to build iron-ore mine in Arctic Circle.

Extracts from Dr. Vijay Sakhuja, “The Arctic Council: Is There a Case for India”, Policy Briefs, Indian Council of World Affairs.

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