The Scramble for the Arctic?

Earlier this month, at a meeting of the members of the Arctic Council — a body of 8 Arctic states (the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden) — the US and Russia sparred over the alleged attempts by Russia to militarize the region. This is not the first instance of confrontation between the two. In 2020, the US Navy conducted drills in the Arctic, accompanied by a frigate of the UK’s Royal Navy. The purpose was to “assert freedom of navigation and demonstrate seamless integration among allies”. With the re-emergence of a nascent great power conflict, the Arctic looks set to be the next theatre of conflict.

However, the importance of the Arctic extends beyond the strategic. It is of great economic importance, housing vast reserves of rare earths, oil & natural gas resources, not to mention fishing grounds. The melting of Arctic ice, which is reigniting interest in the region, has implications on climate change, which affects lives and livelihoods globally.

Rising global temperatures are leading to melting of Arctic ice at unprecedented rates. In another couple of decades, we might perhaps see year-round navigation being made possible through the Arctic Ocean, across the Barents Sea, connecting the North Atlantic with the North Pacific oceans. This is expected to significantly cut down transit times from North America & Europe to Russia’s Far East, China etc., bringing down shipping costs. In fact, in 2017, Russia managed to ship LNG from Yamal in Siberia, along the the northern coast to China, through the Bering Strait.

Given the strategic significance of the Northern Sea Route, Russia is trying to assert itself, by requiring countries to obtain prior approvals for transit of warships across the region, for it believes the Arctic is part of its territory. It is refurbishing its military and naval bases in the region, apart from creating units specific to the Arctic. The Barents Sea has a critical Russian Port that hosts its navy’s Northern Fleet. Other powers, quite rightly, oppose such moves, as it violates the UNCLOS. It is against this background that the US conducted FONOPs last year.

China, which is not an Arctic state, is trying to become a stakeholder in the governance of the region, by calling itself a “near Arctic state”. Not only has it brought out a new Arctic Policy in 2018, it has envisaged a Polar Silk Road cutting across the region, which attains significance with the Northern Sea Route becoming more navigable over the years. With the growing strategic convergence between Russia and China, the US-led West perceives a threat to its interests in the region.

Where does India feature in this great game?

If the Northern Sea Route becomes fully functional, India will be one of the major players to lose its significance on the global stage, unless we are well-prepared. The strategic importance attached to India today stems predominantly from our favorable geographic location at the head of the Indian Ocean, close to the confluence of the Indo-Pacific. If alternate shipping lanes open, Indian Ocean will no longer be as critical for maritime trade and commerce — nearly 50% of global trade is shipped across the Indian Ocean.

While India became an “Observer” state at the Arctic Council in 2013, India is not an Arctic state. Yet, meteorological and climatic phenomena in the Arctic have a bearing on India. Melting of Arctic ice can impact global sea levels. With a nearly 7500 km coastline and two sets of islands, such an adverse event can submerge the coasts and islands, pushing people inland. This can set of an economic and national security crisis.

Climate change in the Arctic is not a concern just for India. Melting of Arctic permafrost has already caused disasters in Russia, as was seen during the collapse of fuel tanks and leakage of oil into the Ambarnaya River in 2020. Extreme weather events like polar vortices, plunging regions into coldwaves, will become all the more frequent, unless we course correct.

To understand how the Arctic responds to climate change is important for India to gauge the impact on the “Third Pole” — the Hindukush — Himalayan ranges, which define India’s climate, culture, agriculture as well as borders. In this regard, we have renamed our National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research as National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research. We have also set-up a research station “Himadri” in the Svalbard island of Norway. Recently, the government has released a draft of the Arctic Policy, which emphasizes ‘sustainable engagement’ in the region.

Even as the focus must indeed be on sustainable development, one cannot ignore the fact that the Arctic houses close to 25% of discoverable hydrocarbon resources, critical to our energy security. Our partnership with Russia and other Arctic states will be key if we are to gain access to these resources, apart from influencing the governance in the region. Some efforts have been made in this direction, during the 2019 summit between PM Modi and President Putin at Vladivostok. The joint statement after the summit made explicit mention of our desires to partner with Russia in the Arctic. The focus now must be on transforming our intent into action.

While the Antarctic has been declared as “global commons” and “common heritage of mankind”, no such definition or designation exists for the Arctic. This makes it vulnerable for jousting between the major powers of the day. Clearly, it is not just global warming that will turn on the heat in the Arctic in the years to come!

Post-script: For further reading, one can refer to explainers on Council on Foreign Relations.

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Akshay Simha

Akshay Simha

Life is a continuous discovery of the self. Interests, opinions, musings — you will find them all here. You can find my other pieces on simhaspeak.blogspot.com