Ny-Ã lesund Research Base. Photo: Christopher Michel
The Arctic has recently assumed considerable strategic significance as it has been underlined by the policies of major powers. The interests and concerns of the Arctic states are vast and varied. India, being an observer in the Arctic Council, has legitimate interests in the region and has created its own Arctic policy. Indiaâs Arctic policy, notified as a draft document in early January 2021, continues along the lines of the countryâs science diplomacy.
Indiaâs Arctic Policy (IAP) was notified as a draft document in early January 2021, and the draft policy is in line with Indiaâs fast expanding scientific-technological (âSciTechâ power) status which has both national and international dimensions. As per the global ranking, India currently occupies the third position in scientific and technical manpower in the world. Its Research and Development (R&D) expenditure and Science and Technology(S&T) publications also rose significantly. With the surge in S&T publications, India is globally at the third position.1)
IAP has been drafted in a strategic milieu of big powers (like China) having invested with great ambition in the Arctic region. Chinaâs âPolar Silk Roadâ is essentially a part of its robust âBelt and Road Initiativeâ (BRI) which seeks to reinforce its geopolitical and geoeconomic posture in the region. India has stepped in at the right time with its âsustainable engagementâ diplomacy and âSciTechâ power in the Arctic.
Geospatially, the Arctic is located above the Arctic Circle, which encompasses the Arctic Ocean basin (roughly 6.1 million square miles) and the northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and the U.S. state of Alaska. Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and the U.S. state of Alaska have direct access to as well as jurisdiction over the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Council was formed as an intergovernmental forum with these countries along with Finland, Sweden and Iceland, following the Ottawa Declaration in 1996. The Declaration has provisions [3(a), (b) and (c)] for non-Arctic states and organisations to participate in and contribute to the working of the Council with an âObserver status.â The Council is envisaged as a forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic actors on common issues such as environmental protection and sustainable development in the region.2)
There are currently five states from Asia holding âObserver statusâ in the Arctic CouncilâIndia, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, all of which joined in 2013. India renewed its membership in 2019 for another five-year period. The admission of âObserversâ in the Council was made conditional upon recognizing the âArctic Statesâ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arcticâ besides recognizing the broad international legal framework that has a bearing on the Arctic Ocean, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The United States had insisted that the Council âshould not deal with matters related to military securityâ and this was added as an addendum upon signing the Ottawa Declaration. Curiously, after twenty years, the former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a 2019 statement that since the situation in the Arctic region had changedâhaving become a terrain of âpower and competitionââand the eight Arctic States should âadapt to this new futureâ.3) Obviously, the reference to âpower and competitionâ was aimed at the expanding role and activities of China against which the Trump administration had serious reservations.4) However, geostrategic concerns continue to generate anxieties among the Arctic States and, consequently, countries like Russia, Canada and Norway have to bolster defence infrastructure in the region.
Indiaâs Arctic contacts began a century ago with its signing of the âSvalbard Treatyâ in February 1920 in Paris.5) A breakthrough in Indiaâs Polar research came in 1981 when the country joined the states engaged in Antarctic exploration. However, its engagements did not make much headway until 2007 when the scientists undertook Indiaâs first Arctic expedition with the goal of initiating studies in glaciology, biological sciences, and ocean and atmospheric sciences. The following year, India set up the research station âHimadriâ at the international Arctic research base at Svalbard, Norway.
In another six yearsâ time, scientists from the ESSO-National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) and the ESSO-National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) set up another facility at Kongsfjorden (which is part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean). The facility is Indiaâs first multi-sensor moored observatory called âIndArcâ which is to undertake studies and collect real-time data on the Arctic climate and its impact on the monsoon. The successful deployment of this facility is seen as a model of Indo-Norwegian scientific and technical cooperation in addressing global climate change.
Another atmospheric laboratory was established in 2016 at Gruvebadet in Ny-Alesund with the aim of initiating studies on clouds, precipitation, long-range pollutants, and other background atmospheric parameters. The Arctic research has obviously helped to initiate studies on glaciers in the Himalayan region. The importance of such comparative studies is underlined by The Annual Report 2018-19 of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), which acts as the nodal agency for Indiaâs Polar research programme, that also includes Arctic studies. According to the Report, âthe glaciers are melting world over and those in Arctic and Himalaya are no exception. The Svalbard glaciers and ice caps cover an area of 34,600 square kilometers while Himalaya occupies a nearly 38,000 square kilometer area. Observation revealed that for the last one and half decades, the process of glacier retreat has been significantly enhanced in both the regionsâ.6)
Needless to say, this has tremendous implications for the agro-climatic conditions of countries like India whose food security itself is dependent on ecosystem stability. The draft IAP itself says that âthere are several synergies between polar studies and the study of the Himalayas. Arctic research will help Indiaâs scientific community to study melting rates of the third poleâthe Himalayan glaciers, which are endowed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world outside the geographic poles.â
There are not many institutions involved in polar studies in India. The Goa-based NCPOR, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, focuses on polar studies and research. While the Ministry of External Affairs looks after the engagements with the Arctic Council, other ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Space are involved in polar research. Since Indiaâs first scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1981, the country has been invested in polar studies, and has several projects underway in the areas of the Arctic, Antarctic, Southern Ocean and the Himalayas.
According to the note attached to IAP, âIndia seeks to play a constructive role in the Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and Polar research. India would also like to contribute in ensuring that as the Arctic becomes more accessible, the harnessing of its resources is done sustainably and in consonance with best practices formulated by bodies such as the Arctic Council.â
The IAP is enunciated with five major areas of engagementsâ(i) Science and research; (ii) Economic and human development cooperation; (iii). Transportation and connectivity; (iv) Governance and international cooperation; and (v) National capacity building. It is clear that the IAP, apart from underlining the significance of science and research, sees the Arctic region as a potential area of engagement in diverse areas of human development and commercial activities. The document says: âIndia seeks to engage in economic development in a manner that is sustainable and is of value to the Arctic residents, especially indigenous communities. The Arctic offers viable opportunities in different sectors where Indian enterprises can be involved, become part of international commerce, promote traditional indigenous knowledge, businesses and best practices.â
IAP sees the Arctic as âthe largest unexplored prospective area for hydrocarbons remaining on earthâ besides its vast reserves of mineral deposits. It also keeps in perspective Indiaâs investment in Russia which amounts to $15 billion in oil and gas projects. Hence India seeks to explore âsimilar opportunities in other Arctic nations as wellâ.7)
The draft policy document is also confident of utilising Indiaâs expertise in the digital economy for facilitating establishment of data centres for commerce in the region. It further explores âopportunities for investment in Arctic infrastructure in areas such as offshore exploration/mining, ports, railways and airports.â This inevitably calls for encouraging participation by Indian public and private sector firms with an expertise in these sectors. Indiaâs chambers of industry and commerce will be encouraged to enhance private investment in the Arctic and explore the public-private-partnership model. The draft policy also indicated that Indian companies will be encouraged to obtain membership of the Arctic Economic Council.
Another area where India has leverage in the Arctic region is human development. The document says: âSpecialized cultures of the Arcticâs indigenous inhabitants are being inexorably impacted by climate change as well as economic development and improved connectivity. This is similar to the socio-ecological-economic predicament of the Himalayan peoples. The disruption of unique ecosystems and erosion of traditional knowledge are common to both. India has substantial expertise in addressing such issues and is uniquely placed to make a positive contribution in assisting the Arcticâs indigenous communities cope with similar challengesâ.8)
In the realm of transportation and connectivity, India has vital stakes. According to IAP, âIndia ranks third in the list of seafarers supplying nations catering to almost ten per cent of global demand. Indiaâs maritime human resources could contribute towards meeting the growing requirements of the Arctic.â
India expects that ice free conditions in the Arctic would soon result in the âopening of new shipping routes and thereby lowering costs and reshaping global trade. Traffic, especially through the Northern Sea Route, is rising exponentially and is projected to quadruple by 2025.â The draft policy also seeks to âexplore the possibility of linking the International North South Transport Corridor with the Unified Deep-Water System and its further extension to the Arctic.âÂ India expects that âthe North-South connectivity will result in lowering shipping costs and overall development of the hinterland and of indigenous communities more than East-West connectivity.â
India is well aware of the fact that the Arctic governance is very crucial in the geopolitical milieu and the region itself is âgoverned by numerous national domestic laws, bilateral agreements, global treaties and conventions and customary laws for the indigenous peoples.â Hence the Arctic statesâ ârespective sovereign jurisdictions as well as areas beyond national jurisdictionâ need to be reckoned within the framework of international and national regulations.
Through IAP, India is expected to âenhance its human resource capabilitiesâ and as part of its Arctic engagement, the overall approach is to âexpand capability, capacity and awareness for Arctic-related scientific research by strengthening NCPOR, involving academic and scientific institutions in India and identifying nodal institutes.â While the overall focus of capacity building is on science and technology, the draft document does not seem to have given adequate space for social sciences, including strategic components, in the making of Indiaâs Arctic policy through the four sections of the âfive pillarsâ that the IAP outlines to deal with these diverse areas.
India put together the IAP at a crucial time of global and regional power realignments, even in the midst of the pandemic. It was in 2018 that China declared itself a âNear Arctic Stateâ and brought out a white paper outlining its plans for the region. Though China does not have territorial sovereignty and related sovereign rights in the Arctic, it has been eager to establish a foothold in the region with its self-professed identity as a ânear-Arctic state.â The strategic significance of Chinaâs Arctic Policy (2018) outlined through its white paper cannot be glossed over. It underscores that the Arctic is a region having âglobal implications and international impacts.â Referring to the Arctic situation, the white paper says that the geopolitical scenario âgoes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankindâ.9) China has also gone to the extent of conceding, perhaps for the first time, that its interests in the Arctic region cannot be limited to âscientific researchâ but would move to an array of commercial activities. This obviously becomes a part of its project to build a âPolar Silk Roadâ that links China with Europe through the Arctic and fits in with the new âblue ocean passagesâ extending from Beijingâs Maritime Silk Road (MSR), put in place in 2013.10) A document by the European Parliament Think Tank (EPTT) says that âChinaâs Arctic policy suggests a strong desire to push for the internationalisation of the Arcticâs regional governance system. The white paper is not a strategy document, and is more interesting for what it omits, such as the national security dimension that is a major driver of Chinaâs Arctic ambitionsâ.11) By calling itself as a âresponsible major country,â China, however, tries to dispel concerns of the Arctic or non-Arctic statesâabout the extent of its geopolitical ambitions in the regionâby emphasising Beijingâs âcommitment to international law and cooperation and balancing economic interests with environmental protectionâ as EPTT pointed out.
Though there were frequent references to UNCLOS in the white paper, experts contest Chinaâs sincerity and credentials. In 2016, for example, as EPTT document says, âChina bluntly disregarded the Permanent Court of Arbitrationâs ruling on Chinaâs maritime claims in the South China Sea versus the Philippinesâ claims, and on the environmental damage Chinaâs large-scale artificial island-building on several maritime features entailedâ.12)
China became more assertive in its maritime policy during the last decade, but the scholars and experts were already absorbed in reimagining the Chinese power in the global strategic landscape. For example, Li Zhenfu of Dalian Maritime Universityâone of the most ardent Chinese commentators on Arctic issuesâwrote a decade go that âWhoever controls the Arctic sea route will control the world economy and a new internationally strategic corridorâ Li said that China must âplay an active, pre-emptive, and vigilant role in Arctic affairsâ.13)
In 2010 a Chinese admiral Yin Zhuo said that the Arctic âbelongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over itâ¦ China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the worldâs population.â However, such statements cannot be dismissed as mere âacademicâ or far-fetched âopinionsâ given the new tempo of Chinese maritime strategies under Xi Jinping. No doubt, the Arctic is rich in resources (with as much as 13 per cent of the worldâs undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of its undiscovered natural gas reserves). However, the Arctic has become geopolitically sensitive14) and the region is warming far more rapidly than anywhere else on the planet. Scientists say that temperatures mounted almost 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 Celsius) in the past decade alone. It certainly calls for extreme vigilance when powers like China and Russia think about transforming the Arctic into a terrain for big business and rapid economic development.Â
Plausibly, Indiaâs draft Arctic policy is embedded in its basic approach which underlines the significance of âsustainable engagementâ through its SciTech power. IAP is also cognizant of the âvulnerability of the Arctic to unprecedented changes in the climate.â Hence its emphasis on ârule-basedâ governance architecture in the region fits in with Indiaâs long-standing policy.
This article was originally published by Economic and Political Weekly, 13 May 2021.Â
KM Seethi is Director of the Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics in MGU.