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Editorial Articles

Issue no 07, 13-19 May 2023

India's Arctic Ambitions: Breaking Barriers and Building Bridges in the Far North

Ranjana Singh

The Arctic region has long been known for its harsh environment, but in recent years, it has emerged as a new frontier for geopolitical competition. As global warming thaws the Arctic ice and opens up new shipping routes and resource extraction opportunities, countries around the world are jockeying for position in this strategically vital region.

The Arctic is already witnessing a surge in economic activities like oil and gas production, mining, shipping, fishing, aquaculture, and tourism, augmenting the potential for extensive development through infrastructure investments, tax revenues, and employment generation. While acknowledging that such economic activities have undoubtedly contributed to the region's development, and future economic initiatives hold immense potential, the world leaders also shoulder the responsibility of mitigating the environmental and social challenges that accompany these activities. The prudent handling of these challenges is crucial to ensure that the region's natural resources and benefits endure, sustain the Arctic communities, and promote the welfare of humanity.

Against this backdrop, India has taken steps to formulate its own Arctic policy, recognising the growing importance of this region to its national interests. India's strategic interests in the Arctic are substantial, as evinced by its Observer status among the thirteen nations that comprise the Arctic Council. This esteemed inter-governmental forum is dedicated to grappling with the multifarious challenges confron[1]ing the Arctic Governments and the indigenous peoples inhabiting the region.

 On 17th March 2022, India released its Arctic Policy entitled 'India and the Arctic: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development'. The policy out[1]lines the country's vision for engagement with the Arctic region, emphasising the impor[1]tance of international co[1]operation, scientific research, and sustainable development. India has long been involved in Arctic research, with its scientists participating in various inter[1]national collaborations and conducting research on climate change, oceanography, and other related areas. Implementing India's Arctic Policy will involve multiple stakeholders, including the academia, the research community, business, and industry.

Objectives of India's Arctic Policy Km

·         Strengthen national capbilities and competencies in science and exploration, climate and environmental protection, and maritime and economic cooperation.

·         Enhance institutional and human resource capacities within government, academic, research, and business institutions.

·          Foster inter-ministerial co[1]ordination to advance India's interests in the Arctic.

·          Improve understanding of the impact of climate change in the Arctic on India's climate, economic, and energy security.

·          Contribute to better analysis, prediction, and coordinated policymaking on the implications of ice melting in the Arctic on India's economic, military, and strategic interests.

·         Study the linkages between Polar Regions and the Himalayas.

·         Deepen cooperation with countries in the Arctic region through various Arctic forums, drawing upon both scientific and traditional knowledge.

·         Increase its participation in the Arctic Council, and improve its understanding of the complex governance structures in the Arctic, relevant international laws, and geopolitics of the region.

Rationale Behind India's Arctic Policy

·         India recognizes the importance of the Arctic as a global commons, and has pledged to work with other countries to address environmental challenges such as climate change and melting ice. As part of this effort, India has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and promoting renewable energy sources.

·          India is also keenly aware of the strategic implications of the Arctic region, particularly in terms of its impact on global trade and energy security. The melting of the Arctic ice is opening up new shipping routes, such as the Northern Sea Route, which could significantly reduce shipping times between Asia and Europe.

·          India also recognises the potential for resource ex[1]traction in the region, particularly in the areas of oil and gas exploration and mining.

 India emphasises that any commercial activities must be carried out in a sustainable and responsible manner, with due consideration for the environmental and social impacts.

Relevance of the Arctic

The relevance of Arctic can be broadly explained under three categories: (a) Scientific Research, Climate Change and Environment; (b) Economic and Human Resources; and (c) Geopolitical and Strategic.

(A) Scientific Research, Climate Change and Environment

The repercussions of the changes underway in the Arctic are not yet fully comprehended, but their impact on global weather patterns, climate sys[1]tems, and ecosystems, including India's monsoons, is unmistakable. The monsoons, which provide over 70% of India's yearly precipitation, are a vital component of the country's agricultural sector, which sustains nearly 58% of its populace and contributes approximately 20% to its GDP. Consequently, any disruption to the monsoon season can have far-reaching consequences for India's economy, food security, and social stability.

Moreover, the reduction in Arctic snow cover and sea ice extent by 21% and 43%, respectively, from 1971 to 2019, coupled with the loss of land ice in all Arctic regions, has resulted in a significant rise in global sea levels. This escalation is primarily due to the loss of land ice in the Arctic, which can have a profound effect on India, particularly its 1,300 island territories and maritime features. The impact of rising sea levels on these vulnerable areas could be catastrophic, leading to detrimental environmental, economic, and social consequences.

The Arctic and the Himalayas, though separated by vast distances, are not dissimilar in their pressing concerns. The Arctic meltdown, while posing a serious threat to the planet, has also provided the scientific community with valuable insights into the glacial melt in the Himalayas, a region often referred to as the 'third pole' and boasting the largest freshwater reserves after the North and South poles. This region, the source of India's major rivers such as the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, is critical to the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on its waters for sustenance and survival. The Ganga and Brahmaputra basins alone support a population of approximately 600 million and 177 million, respectively, and contribute over 40% to India's GDP.

Given the vital role these glaciers play in the survival and prosperity of India, it is imperative that the scientific community closely examines the Arctic and its melting ice. The study of the Arctic is crucial to Indian scientists, as it can provide them with a better understanding of the processes affecting the Himalayas and the potential consequences of further glacial melting. The two regions may be separated by vast distances, but their interconnectivity and shared concerns demand that we approach them as integral components of a larger planetary system, where changes in one area can have far-reaching implications for others.

(B) Economic and Human Resources

India, as the third-largest energy-consuming country in the world, is heavily reliant on imported oil and gas, with the latter catering to almost half of the country's total gas consumption. Despite this, India's gas mix in its energy basket amounts to a mere 6%, significantly lower than the world average of 24%. However, India aims to increase this to 15% by 2030, highlighting the country's pressing need for sustainable and reliable sources of energy. The Arctic region's vast hydrocarbon resources, coupled with its rich deposits of rare earth minerals, hold significant potential for addressing India's energy security needs and strategic mineral deficiencies. As the Arctic's resources become increasingly accessible due to melting ice, India may find itself in a unique position to benefit from this region's vast potential. However, as India considers the Arctic's potential contribution to its's energy mix, it is crucial that it takes into account the environmental and social implications of resource extraction. Therefore, India's Arctic Policy seeks to approach the region's resources with care and consideration, ensuring that our actions are sustainable and responsible, both for the sake of the planet and the well-being of its inhabitants.

(C) Geopolitical and Strategic Significance

China: The current state of the Arctic ice sheet has not only resulted in its gradual melting but has also escalated geopolitical competition to a level not witnessed since the Cold War. In January of 2018, China's White Paper on the Arctic boldly asserted its status as a "Near[1]Arctic State" and identified trans[1]Arctic shipping routes as the "Polar Silk Road," designating it as the third transportation corridor for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This assertion has been fiercely challenged by the United States, which has vehemently refuted China's claim in the Arctic by declaring that "there are only Arctic States and Non-Arctic States. No third category exists, and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing.

" Despite the US's objections, China has made substantial investments in the Arctic region, primarily in infrastructure and energy sectors. China has also embarked on the construction of nuclear ice-breakers, a project that no other country apart from Russia has undertaken. These developments have greatly alarmed the US and other Arctic countries, who view China's growing presence in the region as a significant threat to their national security and interests.

Russia: Russia's Arctic domain is unparalleled, encompassing almost half of the region's territory, coastline, population, mineral resources, and hydrocarbon reserves. Despite its sparse population, the Russian Arctic region's economic significance cannot be overstated, contributing a staggering 15% to the nation's GDP and 20% to its exports. With such substantial stakes, Russia's Arctic interests are of paramount importance, particularly during a period of economic and political sanctions. Therefore, Russia is actively seeking funding and collaboration to develop the Arctic's infrastructure and the Northern Sea Route (NSR). However, the US opposes Russia's regulatory approach to the NSR, which includes treating portions of it as internal waters, controlling merchant ship traffic, and restricting foreign warship passage.

The commencement of new shipping routes and the potential for increased resource extraction have sparked a frenzy of activity among the world's major players, including the formidable trio of the United States, China, and Russia, as well as NATO. This has led to a race for strategic positioning and influence in the region, as evidenced by the conduct of Exercise Vostok by Russia and Trident Juncture by NATO in 2018. These were the largest military exercises undertaken by both sides since the conclusion of the Cold War.

Of particular note, China participated in Exercise Vostok while Trident Juncture involved all 29 NATO members at that time, as well as Sweden and Finland. This marked the first deployment of a US Navy aircraft carrier above the Arctic Circle since 1991, underscoring the significance of the region's geopolitical importance. In addition, the re-establishment of the 2nd Fleet by the US in May 2018, which was originally created in 1950 to counter Soviet Naval Forces in the North Atlantic but was disbanded in September 2011, further highlights the intensifying focus on the Arctic by the world's major powers.

Boundary Disputes: Beyond the fierce struggle for strategic control, the Arctic States remain embroiled in unresolved boundary disputes, further complicating the geopolitical landscape. Notably, the United States finds itself at odds with both Canada and Russia over continental shelf overlap, while these two powers themselves are mired in conflicting continental shelf claims. Moreover, the maritime boundaries of the US and Canada remain undetermined, fueling additional discord, as does their disagreement over the legal classification of the North West Passage, which Canada, like Russia with the Northern Sea Route, asserts as its internal waters. Adding to this already intricate web of disputes, Canada and Denmark remain locked in a territorial conflict over Hans Island, further complicating the delicate balance of power in this volatile region.


 India's strategic importance in the Arctic region has amplified in recent years, reflecting its rising global status and growing economic power. India's growing interest in the Arctic is not only driven by its quest for energy security but also by its commitment to scientific research, environmental protection, and sustainable development. India's Arctic policy acknowledges the region's importance as a vital component of the global climate system and underscores the need for international cooperation to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the Arctic's evolving environment.

Moreover, India's engagement in the Arctic region has the potential to bring significant economic benefits to both India and the Arctic states. India's expertise in various fields, including information technology, renewable energy, and pharmaceuticals, could be leveraged to foster new economic opportunities in the Arctic region. Similarly, the Arctic's vast untapped natural resources, including oil, gas, and minerals, could provide India with a new source of energy to fuel its growing economy.

Furthermore, India's Arctic policy emphasises the importance of building a sustainable and resilient Arctic ecosystem, which takes into account the needs of indigenous communities, the environment, and the global community. Hence, India's geographic location and its strategic partnerships with Arctic states such as Norway, Russia, and Canada, have the potential to play a crucial role in strengthening international cooperation in the region.

Tips for Job Aspirants

 Suggested course for aspirants seeking to study indepth the significance if Arctic Region and India's Arctic Policy:

I.                   Understanding the Arctic

- Geographical location and features of the Arctic

- Climate change and its impact on the Arctic

- Importance of the Arctic for global and regional security

II.                India's Arctic Policy

- Why India is interested in the Arctic

- Brief history of India's involvement in the Arctic

 - India's official stance on the Arctic

- India's Arctic Council membership and participation

- India's scientific research in the Arctic

 - India's economic interests in the Arctic

III.             Challenges and Opportunities

- Challenges faced by India in the Arctic

 - Opportunities for India in the Arctic

- India's role in shaping the future of the Arctic

Helpful links:

- The Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: Arctic Council (https://www. mea.gov.in/arctic-council. htm)

 - The Hindu: India's Arctic Policy must be shaped by science (https://www.thehindu.com/ sci-tech/science/indias-arctic[1]policy-must-be-shaped-by[1]science/article26319716. ece)

 - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Arctic Report Card (https:// www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report[1]Card)

 - The Arctic Institute: Arctic Facts and Figures (https:// www.thearcticinstitute.org/ arctic-facts-figures/)

- World Wildlife Fund (WWF): Arctic Biodiversity (https:// arcticwwf.org/ species)

 - The Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India: Arctic Research (https:// www.moes.gov.in/arctic[1]research)

- Arctic Today: India's Arctic Policy (https://www.arctic today.com/indias-arctic[1]policy/)

- The Diplomat: India's Arctic Ambitions (https://thediplomat. com/2019/07/indias-arctic ambitions/)

 - The Arctic Institute: Arctic Security (https://www.thearc ticinstitute.org/arctic-security/)

- Arctic Economic Council: Arctic Investment Protocol (https://www.arcticeconomic council.com/projects/ arctic-investment-protocol/)

- The Guardian: Arctic Thaw Opens Shipping Lanes but Raises Environmental Concerns (https://www.the guardian.com/environment/20 21/aug/10/arctic-thaw-opens[1]shipping-lanes-but-raises[1]environmental-concerns)

- The Arctic Council: Arctic Futures Report (https://www. arctic-council.org/en/re sources/arctic-futures-2050/)

 - Brookings Institution: The Future of the Arctic (https:// www.brookings.edu/research/ the-future-of-the-arctic/)

- The Economic Times: India's Arctic Policy Needs Greater Geopolitical Heft (https://eco nomictimes.indiatimes.com/bl ogs/et-commentary/indias[1]arctic-policy-needs-greater[1]geopolitical-heft/)

(The author is an educationist, entrepreneur and competitive examinations coach. She can be reached at reach.ranjanaS@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.