- It is a known fact that 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 people 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 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 into the evolving politico-economic-strategic dynamics of the Arctic region.
Background: 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’.
- The Council members meet biannually, and the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates every two years.
- There are six working groups:
- Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP);
- Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP);
- Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF);
- Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR);
- Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME); and
- Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG).
- The Council has provision for observer status for states and is open to:
- Non-arctic states;
- Inter-governmental and Inter-parliamentary organizations, global and regional; and
- non-governmental organizations.
- The six permanent observers are: UK, France, the Netherlands, Poland , Germany and Spain. There are now six new observers i.e. India, China, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.
- In 2009, the Arctic Council had rejected a bid by the ad hoc members (then China, EU, Japan & South Korea) to become permanent observers at the Council meetings but “decided to continue discussing the role of observers in the Arctic Council.”
- The Arctic littorals have established research stations for scientific studies on climate, weather, geology and atmospheric sciences. Besides, non-littorals such as China, India, Japan, and South Korea have also set up scientific research stations at Ny-Alesund, Norway.
- The Arctic littorals through the Arctic Council, have engaged in bilateral and multilateral discussions to devise strategies to mitigate the adversarial impact of the Arctic ice melt and develop framework for cooperation. At a meeting on March 30, 2010, the Foreign Ministers from the Council member countries met and discussed issues relating to shipping regulations, maritime boundaries, search and rescue responsibilities, and negotiating territorial disputes in the Beaufort Sea and the Barents Sea.
Some Important facts
- Now, Canada took over the council chairmanship from Sweden on 15th may 2013 for a period of two years till 14th May 2015.
- Presently, Canada’s Leona Aglukkaq, a conservative health minister, is on the Council’s chair.
- The pro-environment group WWF says the Arctic holds the world’s largest remaining untapped gas reserves and some of its largest undeveloped oil reserves. The group says the rush to tap the resource imperils the fragile environment and eco-system.
- EU (European Union) bid for permanent observer status to the Arctic Council has been rejected.
New Observers: The case of India & China
- India’s engagement in the Arctic dates back to nearly nine decades when it signed the ‘Treaty between Norway, the United States of America, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Ireland and the British overseas Dominions and Sweden concerning Spitsbergen’ on February 9, 1920 in Paris which entered into force on August 14, 1925.
- The Treaty is also referred to as the ‘Treaty concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen’ or the ‘Svalbard Treaty’.
- At that time, India was part of the British overseas dominions and The Right Honourable the Earl of Derby, K.G., G.C.V.O., C.B., Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United Kingdom had signed the treaty at Paris.
- 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.
- For a list of current projects undertaken by Government of India in the Arctic can be read here.
- China has engaged in Arctic studies since 2000 and Chinese scientists, scholars, policy makers and legal experts have participated in international seminars and conferences focusing on commercial, legal and geopolitical issues relating to the Arctic.
- Some Chinese scholars have openly advocated that the 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. In one such articulation it has 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.
- Circumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones. In essence China is actively participating in Arctic affairs and thus attempting to establish its strategic position. It has successfully managed to engage Canada and Norway in a formal bilateral dialogue on Arctic issues.
Indian engagement with the Arctic: The way forward
- The Arctic region though felt was at the margins of India’s mental map and that 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. All this is now past with India’s permanent observer status in the arctic.
- By virtue of the Svalbard Treaty, India is a ‘stakeholder’ in the region. New Delhi’s prudent efforts to forge relationships with the Arctic Council members have inarguably won India a permanent membership (observer) of the Council by virtue of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. Now India should further broaden cooperation with Nordic countries and establish stronger bilateral dialogues and discussions to understand the evolving politico-strategic developments in the Arctic region.
- Engage in policy related research on the politics of the ‘High North’ and strengthen ‘Arctic Strategy’.
- Further take even more proactive measures to undertake detailed Arctic resource assessment and exploitation studies.
- Regular expeditions to the Arctic and consolidate scientific research.
- Develop technological capability to exploit Arctic living and non-living resources.
- India is a strong advocate of global nuclear disarmament and can play a vital role in promoting the idea of a nuclear free Arctic.
- 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 (such as India, China etc.) 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 horizon is broad and new oppurtune times are on the grab. India must make strong & coherent efforts to make full use of this partnership for home & global benefit today and beyond.