banner articles

India, Arctic and Geopolitics

  May 26, 2020

India, Arctic and Geopolitics

What is the Arctic Council?

The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

Is India associated with it?

India has been an Observer at the Arctic Council from 2013 onwards. India has been re-elected as an observer to the Arctic Council in 2019.

Which countries have membership?

The Arctic Council is formed of Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. 

When was its last meeting and what was decided?

The Council met in 2019.  Among the important decisions, they “reaffirmed their commitment to maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic”. They also committed to the well-being of the Arctic’s inhabitants and the region’s sustainable development and the protection of its environment. Most importantly, the joint statement recognised the rights of Arctic indigenous peoples and to consult and cooperate with them.

How much progress has India made in its research and exploration?

India opened Himadri, its only research station in the region in 2008. In July 2018, India displayed an increasing commitment to Arctic research when its National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research was renamed the National Centre for Polar and Oceanic Research. Furthermore, India and Norway’s bilateral research cooperation is realised in the Norwegian Programme for Research Cooperation with India (INDNOR). As India currently lacks a Polar-suitable vessel, it has planned to acquire a Polar Research Vehicle which will be advantageous in escalating scientific research activity.

Why is India interested? 

In the absence of an official Arctic policy, India’s Arctic research objectives are centred on ecological and environmental aspects, with a focus on climate change. Generally, India is seen to have taken the lead among Asian Observer states placing more weight on environmental and scientific rather than the economic potential of the region. Support for such focus is certainly strengthened by the fact that the importance of agriculture to the Indian economy and its dependence on monsoons, along with its long coast-line with a high population make the country extremely vulnerable to climate change.

In the economic domain, and particularly in energy, India has prioritised its historical relations with Russia and the latter’s dedicated focus on oil and gas exploration.

What is the correlation between Arctic ice-melt and the Indian Monsoons?

India’s scientific and research activity, although in its early stages in the Arctic could expand given its experience in Antarctica. A correlation between Arctic ice-melt and the Indian Monsoons has been established but the exact relation remains undiscovered. It is believed that melting Arctic ice and the consequent increase of freshwater in the region prevents heat from escaping, leading warmer waters to the Indian Ocean which in turn alters Indian monsoons. The effects of this would be detrimental, specifically on agriculture that remains critical to India’s economy and growing population. Sea level rise would be accompanied by a devastating situation for India’s coastal inhabitants and ecosystems. Moreover, the Himalayas or often what is called the ‘third pole’ where India’s major rivers originate, will worsen the situation. It is imperative that India improve upon and put in place a more robust Arctic research programme to deal with these future threats. 

Geopolitics of Arctic?

Geopolitics is about the politics of geography and territory which includes its various characteristic e.g. location, size, natural resources, trade routes (both land and sea), economy and also environmental conditions.

Most of the researches carried out by scientists from different countries indicate that ice in the Arctic region is melting with unprecedented and unpredictable rates. According to some experts, within next forty years or so most areas of the region would be ice free and navigable. This condition may lead to fierce competition and even conflict among different counties surrounding this region for the control of mining, oil and gas, sea routes and of course territory for military purpose also. This scenario seems to be more realistic as the United Nation law of sea is not clear about the status of the Arctic sea and US has also not ratified the existed law.
Arctic being so vast, resourceful, and strategically located is bound to become a topic of geopolitical debate. In near future Arctic region may emerge as core area of geopolitical debates.
It is estimated there were 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1,670 cubic feet of natural gas in the Arctic. Due to climate change, the resources may become usable too.
The militarization of the Arctic has  to do with the resources. Companies can make huge profits. Thus there are overlapping sovereignty claims. There is contention for resources and shipping lanes. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Arctic countries are flexing their muscles. Canada, Denmark and Russia are spending on the Arctic programme heavily.