India’s Arctic Ambitions: Strategy for A Superpower in Making

Exploring the Arctic is still a big challenge for the world. The harsh weather, rough terrain and perpetual frozen state of the Arctic are major hurdles when it comes to exploring and claiming parts of the region. However, in recent years, the snow has begun receding rapidly, and this is acting as an advantage for countries willing to invest in the region for resource exploration and gaining a strategic upper hand.

Contests in the Region

The Arctic is becoming a highly contested region due to its strategic location and deposits of huge amounts of hydrocarbons and precious metals. The Arctic states (Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) as well as other major non-Arctic global powers such as China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are looking at this region as a playground which, in many ways, will determine the fate of the world in the coming future. The ice-capped Arctic is facing disastrous effects of climate change at almost twice the rate across the rest of the Earth. Climate change has led to rapid melting of ice which has contributed significantly to the sea level rise and this, in turn, has jeopardised the lives of millions of people living in close proximity to the sea across the globe.

There are both opportunities and challenges for the multi-polar world order in realising the conflict-free Arctic dream. Countries such as Russia and China are trying to take benefit of the changing dynamics of the Arctic. The melting ice gives access to huge reserves of hydrocarbons and also opens up a couple of major trade routes which will cut short the distance between East Asia and Europe significantly. On one hand, the opportunities for new resources and trade routes are up for grabs, but on the other, the huge costs involved in exploring and producing hydrocarbons amidst the harsh climate are significant challenges. Another challenge is the clashes emerging from competing claims of Arctic states over the Arctic Ocean, which can only be settled under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These claims prove to be a hurdle in the way of successful Arctic Diplomacy.

India’s Position and Approach

India is a permanent observer state of the Arctic Council and has a great interest in the region not only due to economic and strategic ambitions, but also due to its environmental concerns

The Arctic is a significant region from India’s perspective. India being one the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world is heavily dependent on its hydrocarbon supplies for sustaining this growth rate. The melting of snow in the region opens up efficient trade routes; however, it also raises concerns of rising sea levels. 

The Arctic further signals new trade opportunities and potential for new shipping hubs and ports at lower costs across Asia as it becomes easier to transport oil from the Arctic reserves to East Asia. 

Recent research suggests that there is a direct link between the Arctic climate and Indian monsoon. The current pattern of change in the Arctic climate, especially the melting of ice and higher average temperatures, drastically weakens the Indian monsoon. It is India’s responsibility to take part in climate change mitigation and Arctic diplomacy since Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoon and a large part of India’s population is dependent on agriculture for livelihood.

India’s extensive coastline is also likely to be directly affected by the rise in sea level. India also looks to have an upper hand at energy security. West Asia is in a perpetual state of unrest and with the introduction of unconventional sources of hydrocarbons, India is looking towards her old friend Russia for energy security. Russia has a third of the world’s total natural gas reserves and about 10-13% of the world’s oil reserves. Most of these reserves are in the Russian Arctic and scientists are exploring more reserves in the Arctic Ocean, a large part of which Russia claims to be its territorial waters.

India is a key part of Arctic Diplomacy as almost a century ago, on 29th December 1920, India (then British India) ratified the Svalbard Treaty (then the Spitsbergen Treaty) and became one of the 14 original high-contracting parties.

India is taking a benign approach towards the current developments in the region as it wants to place itself in a better position than China by creating goodwill for itself. While China is taking an aggressive economic approach to reap the benefits of the new trade routes, India is looking forward to building on its good relations with Scandinavian countries and Russia for access to and sustainable use of the Arctic resources. A counter-argument to India’s benign approach is that India could benefit from becoming more active in Arctic governance. India already holds the permanent observer status of Arctic Council and utilising its good relationship with Russia and Norway will benefit India.

The Way Forward

India has to look beyond South Asia to place itself as a global superpower. Active involvement in the Arctic region will favour India in securing hydrocarbons supplies for its energy security and gaining some access to the Arctic shipping route in the Northwest Passage connecting Europe and Asia which is nearly 5,000 nautical miles shorter than the current one. Just as India is taking strides in space exploration, the exploration of and strategic cooperation with relevant countries in the Arctic Region will take India to great lengths in the fields of energy, trade and diplomacy with them. 

As the Arctic’s commercial potential gradually increases, a common perception has emerged that India will be unable to gain as much as China, Japan and South Korea. This is partly true; however, while India may not benefit greatly from the new trade routes that are emerging in the Arctic region, having some access, albeit indirect, and a say in them is still not bad. This substantiates the argument that India should channel its energy towards science and environmental concerns in the region. Indeed, scholars have suggested that the most likely method would be through engagement in research and scientific activity, keeping away any negative perceptions of Arctic Council members regarding India’s intentions in the region. In any case, it is vital that for the sake of its varied, long term interests, India must continues to create a favourable environment for itself in the region.

Soumya De

Soumya De is an IR professional and a polyglot with a keen interest and experience in technology, international trade & business, environment, geography, languages, cultures and cuisines.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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