- Introduction about the Arctic’s changed dynamics.
- Mention the rising geopolitical complexities.
- Discuss India’s approach on various dimensions.
The Arctic region, with its unique yet fragile ecosystem, is undergoing environmental and geopolitical transitions. With the unsettled Ukraine crisis, the Arctic has become a new ‘geopolitical space’ where ‘spillover effects’ of militarisation are undermining the Arctic Council. The recent suspension of Arctic Council or the ‘current temporary pause’ as declared by the Arctic Seven (A7), as a response to Russia’s military action in Ukraine, has terminated cooperation between these states.
The changing scenario has prompted India, whose primary interests in the Arctic remains scientific, to evaluate the geo-economic and geopolitical prospects in the region.
Geopolitical complexities: The complex interplay of geopolitics with emerging geo-economics is rapidly propelling the Arctic towards re-securitisation. Canada recently announced its commitment to upgrade the Arctic defence and modernize its North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) capabilities. The US, too, plans to have an Arctic ambassador. For the first time since the establishment of the Arctic Council, the region is witnessing complete breakdown of cooperation between Russia and the western Arctic states.
The neutral status of Finland and Sweden, which till recently acted as a buffer between NATO and Russia, will no longer hold. While on the one hand, their accession has strengthened NATO positioning in the Arctic, on the other, it has simultaneously resulted in greater instability in the Arctic region. This could trigger greater military build-ups where even a small military miscalculation could result in military standoffs. Such a scenario could not only escalate East–West tensions in the Arctic.
- India’s Arctic Policy asserts that the Arctic region remains of utmost importance from the scientific, geo-economic and geostrategic perspectives. India’s modern scientific engagements in the Arctic started in 2007 with the establishment of its first permanent scientific research station, Himadri at Svalbard, Norway. Since then, ‘scientific research’ and the study of ‘teleconnection links between Arctic ice melting and variations in Indian monsoons’ has remained key priority
- Science & Climate change : Scientific and climate change research remains vital for India, particularly in understanding the changes in the Indian monsoons and their teleconnection link between the Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalayas (or the Third Pole). India maintains independent bilateral relations with Russia and all the other Arctic countries. It further needs to enhance these partnerships and broaden its collaboration. Indian universities and academic institutions undertaking polar scientific research can play a critical role by building knowledge bridges with Arctic universities and institutions of global excellence. ‘Space technology’ that finds specific mention in India’s Arctic Policy could become an important game-changer in the region. The Arctic severely lacks space-based infrastructure. India maintains space-based cooperation with Russia and US. This, however, needs to be enhanced with other Arctic countries bilaterally, multilaterally and also on ‘client–seller’ relationship
- Economic & Human development: India’s growing need for hydrocarbons and energy resources makes the Arctic region important for the country. Scientific estimates predict that the Arctic region accounts for 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. The Arctic region also remains important as rare earth minerals that are of strategic value are found in the region. Critical metals such as Cobalt, Copper, Lithium, Lead, Nickel, Niobium, Phosphorus, and various Platinum-group elements that are required in manufacturing of critical defence equipment, clean technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries of electric vehicles and various other sectors, are abundantly available in the Arctic region.
- India’s ‘One Sun One World One Grid’ (OSOWOG) initiative launched at COP26 in Glasgow, could also have its polar dimension. All the eight Arctic countries witness six months of continuous sunlight. Linking all the Arctic states with OSOWOG can provide a new platform for cooperation amongst these states.
- Transportation and connectivity: Shrinking of the Arctic Sea ice due to climate change is encouraging the growth of maritime traffic. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian coast has the potential of cutting travel distance between European and Asian markets by 40%. Such long-term Russian transport strategy gives fillip to the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which is a priority for India. The NSR and the INSTC would enable direct connectivity between Murmansk and Mumbai Transportation and connectivity that remain important components of India’s Arctic policy need to be developed by following a multifaceted approach in the region.
- International cooperation : The Arctic Council, the only existing mechanism for cooperation in the region, remains currently suspended. India should call for reviving the Arctic Council as per the fundamental principles of Ottawa Declaration that called for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among Arctic states and its indigenous communities on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection. Simultaneously, to meet its own Arctic priorities, India needs to invest in developing its independent polar infrastructure and research base in the region. Developing cooperation with Arctic countries having polar expertise also remains crucial to India’s continued engagement.
The Arctic is emerging as a region of overlapping geopolitical contestations. NATO’s eastward expansion, post-Ukraine crisis, has brought securitisation upfront with East–West military re-alignment. With Finland and Sweden’s application for membership to NATO and presumed isolation of Russia have led to greater insecurities in the region. In the changing scenario, India, as an Observer Member in the Arctic Council, needs to carefully align its national priorities in the region. In order to achieve these objectives, India needs to develop independent mechanisms to strengthen its existing bilateral relations with all the Arctic countries. This needs to be done in a calibrated and non-judgmental way. Finally, India should continue to re-emphasize its call for peaceful resolution of Arctic disputes.