Observing the Arctic

India ‘s observer status  at the Arctic Council comes at an opportune time. Its activities now will impact how states perceive and act in the Arctic in the long-term.  

The Arctic Council’s decision to grant permanent observer status to India, along with China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy has important ramifications in a region experiencing rapid environmental change. The evolving geography of the region presents challenges and opportunities to not only the littoral Arctic states, but to others in seemingly far-off regions as well.  Sea ice extent in the Arctic ocean has decreased from an average 6.74 million sq km from 1979-2000 to about 3.41 million sq km in 2012. This receding ice melt has made the exploration of undiscovered mineral and energy deposits feasible. In the backdrop of its fairly nascent interest in a relatively remote region, India will begin to study the impact of these environmental changes on its own weather patterns, and develop a position on related geopolitical changes consistent with its national interests.


The Arctic Council was established in 1996 to promote cooperation and coordination among governments and indigenous people of Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Russia and the United States.  The Council’s decision to add to the list of permanent observers (thus far comprising only EU member states Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain) benefits both the Council and the new inductees.

For the Arctic Council, the inclusion of Asia’s three largest economies — China, Japan and India — redefines and expands the hitherto limited regional scope of the organisation and advances its own centrality to future policymaking in the Arctic.  For India and other new members, the Council provides a platform to influence policy in a potentially energy-rich region undergoing significant change.  Of course, just how influential permanent observers with no voting rights in the Council can be will remain to be seen. As an observer-member, India will no doubt benefit from greater visibility into the decision making processes of the Council, but expectations of influence are best kept moderate in the short-term, given the nature of the membership and limitations in our own capabilities.

It is also here that we must guard ourselves from exaggerated assessments of great power rivalry in the Arctic. News media reports have recently referred to the Arctic as a new battleground for Sino-Indian rivalry.  Some have even called it a new age “gold rush”. In actuality, India is yet to clearly articulate its views on the Arctic and what it hopes to gain out of its membership to the Council. Unlike India’s Antarctic program, which spans three decades of multidisciplinary research, interest in the Arctic is a more recent phenomenon.  To the extent that the Arctic region is a relatively new venture for India, research into areas such as environmental science and climate change will help further our understanding of evolving climatic patterns in the region and their impact on India. Thus, India’s first multidisciplinary research base Himadri, at Spitsbergen, Norway is an important step to actualising these goals.

Changes in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic will have a direct impact on the Indian subcontinent. Melting ice caps in the Arctic region contribute to rising global sea levels. In turn, rising global sea levels could potentially put populated coastal cities in India and Bangladesh, and Indian Ocean island-nations like the Maldives at risk. Ice melts could also result in air currents moving north, bringing an increase in precipitation in the Arctics. This could alter global weather patterns, including the timing and intensity of the monsoons that India’s agricultural sector is heavily reliant on. Studies conducted by Indian research teams in the Arctic will assist in further discerning the impact of climatic changes on weather systems in our region.

The potential discovery of untapped energy resources in the Arctic is an important source of India’s interest in the region. But while there has been increased activity to exploit energy resources, the Arctic region is far from being the panacea for an energy-starved world. To begin with, there is no real agreement among the Arctic Council member states on exploiting the region’s energy resources for commercial gain. Russia has initiated several off-shore drilling joint-venture projects, and Indian companies have show an interest in participating in some of these, particularly in Siberia and Eastern Russia. Others like Canada and the United States (under the Obama administration) are largely opposed to offshore drilling in the Arctic primarily due to environmental concerns.

Estimating just how much of undiscovered oil and gas reserves exist in the Arctic is a significant challenge. Even if substantial oil and gas reserves are discovered, the costs of exploration and transportation will continue to pose challenges to commercial viability. All taken together, for India this means that in the short to mid-term, its energy supplies will continue to come most substantially via the Arabian Sea. Oil and gas supplies from the Arctic could perhaps complement other sources, but their prospects are, at best, long-term.

Ice melts in the Arctics could also make the northern sea routes navigable for commerce. China’s first ship to sail through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to Iceland is reported to have cut down the time needed to reach its destination by about 40 percent.  Indeed, the Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhurakshak made its way back from an overhaul in Russia through the NSR in January 2013.  However, the NSR is encumbered by a narrow window of about 3 months from July to October when commercial navigation is feasible. Even during these months, commercial navigation is not entirely possible without the assistance of accompanying icebreakers.  Further, the absence of adequate porting infrastructure in the northern routes means that the more traditional southern trading routes will continue to dominate sea-based commerce for the foreseeable future.

These challenges notwithstanding, India must begin to seriously consider its position on how this rapidly changing region ought to be governed. While there may be an exaggerated sense of the impact of changes in the Arctic today, changes are indeed occurring that will impact how states perceive and act in the Arctic in the long-term.

Given these changes, can Council members evolve acceptable norms for the exploitation of Arctic Ocean resources while balancing regional and global environmental concerns?  Will the Arctic’s integration and impact on global commerce mean that the current acceptance of the littoral states’ monopoly over policymaking in the region could become unacceptable in the future?  If it is India’s position that the Arctic Ocean — like other oceans — constitutes the global commons, how does it impact its recent membership into a largely exclusivist Arctic Council?  Indeed, does its membership mean that it has already accepted the primacy of the Council over the Arctic Ocean?  Lastly, even as hard security as a subject continues to remain outside the scope of the Arctic Council’s mandate, what future groupings could emerge to secure the northern trading routes, and what role, if any, should India play in them?

These are the fundamental questions that need to be answered as the receding ice cover coincides with new geopolitical realities in the Arctic.

Photo: Wofratz (Wikimedia)