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One-Day Seminar titled "India and the Arctic: Prospects for Partnership"

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  • November 29, 2022

    Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi in collaboration with the Ministry of Earth Sciences, Government of India, organised a Seminar ‘India and the Arctic: Prospects for Partnership’ on 29 November 2022. Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA delivered the opening remarks. The day-long seminar was divided into three sessions.

    The first session on ‘Arctic Science and Climate Change’ was chaired by Dr. Thamban Meloth, Director, National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), Goa. Dr. S. Rajan, India’s representative to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS) and Dr. Sandip Rashmikant Oza, Senior Scientist, Space Application Centre, Ahmedabad, were the two panelists.

    The second session on ‘Arctic Geopolitics’ was chaired by Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha, Centre Coordinator, Non-Traditional Security Centre, MP-IDSA. The two panelists included Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi and Professor Sanjay Chaturvedi, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi.

    The third and final session on ‘India’s Arctic Capacity Building’ was chaired by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy. Capt. Anurag Bisen (IN),  MP-IDSA and Dr. Rahul Mohan, Scientist F, International Cooperation and Outreach, NCPOR, Goa, were the two panelists.

    The vote of thanks was delivered by Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA.

    Participants included officials from the concerned ministries, armed forces personnel, members of the diplomatic corps, representatives from the media, think-tanks and the academia.

    Executive Summary

    The Arctic is emerging as a region of high geopolitical and geo-economic activity. As per recent scientific estimates, the Arctic is warming at a rate three to four times the average normal. An emerging interconnection of ‘Science’ and ‘Geopolitics’ makes the Arctic a region of global interests. With the release of India’s Arctic Policy, its interest in the region from scientific, geopolitical and national capacity building perspectives requires careful evaluation. The seminar covered critical emerging issues in the Arctic and concluded with some key recommendations and policy perspectives for India’s future engagement in the region.

    Detailed Report

    The Seminar began with welcome remarks by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy. He discussed the Arctic’s immense resource potential and its crucial role in maintaining global climate balance by acting as a virtual thermostat. The Arctic is a bellwether of climate fluctuations that the world is witnessing today and therefore, according to Amb. Chinoy, there is need for greater scientific understanding of the region. He highlighted the recent COP 27 Summit and its agenda on meeting the challenges of global warming and opined that the impact of indiscriminate materialism on the ecosystem cannot be escaped. He viewed the event of Arctic becoming ice-free as an apparent conundrum which attracts commercial activity and provides an alternative shipping route as well as worsens the climate change crisis.

    Amb. Chinoy raised the need for enhanced governance structures, greater resource management, and environment and cultural protection. He also discussed the relevance of India’s Lifestyle for Environment (LiFE) campaign and reiterated the importance of India's Arctic policy. Speaking about India's ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, Amb. Chinoy informed the audience that India’s Arctic policy displays its intent and readiness to play a global role and contribute to the global good. He observed that the Arctic is emerging as a theatre for geopolitical contestation and that it is antithetical to the very foundation of the Arctic, which was envisioned as a zone of peace since the end of the Cold War.

    The first session on ‘Science and Climate Change’ in the Arctic was chaired by Dr. Thamban Meloth. He highlighted that global warming has led to irreparable changes in the Polar Regions and drastic reduction in sea-ice with severe implications for the Arctic indigenous populations. In addition, the Chair observed that an ice-free Arctic will lead to several geopolitical ramifications and impact the resources, including the global fishing industry. Dr. Meloth noted that global engagement with the Antarctic pened the doors for Polar Studies and that the Himalayas and the Arctic are deeply connected through the global climate systems, thawing of permafrost and the Indian monsoons. The increasing number of natural disasters, including landslides and cloudbursts, can also be attributed to the same. During his remarks, Dr. Meloth familiarised the audience with the activities of the NCPOR, the Indian research stations and the various scientific expeditions to the Polar Regions. He particularly noted that the NCPOR acts as an ‘Indian gateway to the Polar Regions’ and that all activities related to the Arctic should also consider the welfare of the indigenous populations.

    Speaking on ‘What Ails the Arctic Climate?’ Dr. S. Rajan explored the balance between the scientific and non-scientific elements of the Arctic. He discussed the climate system and the related oceanic variability and atmospheric circulations and thereon addressed the link between the Asian monsoon and the Polar Regions. He indicated that several studies have explored the link between cold episodes in the North Atlantic and the Asian monsoon during the Holocene, and concluded his presentation by highlighting the challenges due to limited knowledge about the natural processes within the climate system and the inability of climate models to reproduce  observations accurately.

    Dr. Sandip Oza made his presentation on India’s research in ‘Remote Sensing of Arctic Cryosphere’. He explored the role of space to understand the dynamics of the Arctic region and its support in analysing the interconnectivity of multiple issues. The speaker discussed ice sheet elevation, mass balance, and assessment of surface melt processes, and as evidence displayed several maps of the change in sea-ice masses in the Arctic. He brought forth to the audience the web-based services for archival material and dissemination of information related to the Arctic like the VEDAS (Visualisation of Earth Observation Data and Archival System) Portal. Dr. Oza discussed several potential and existing international collaborations for niche studies in the Arctic, for example the advanced Arctic weather monitoring system and energy balance in the region. He then focused on the role of several future space missions like NISAR (L&S dual frequency) and TRISHNA (ISRO-CNES Optical & Thermal) in cryosphere studies. Dr. Oza concluded by highlighting the joint Earth observing mission between NASA and ISRO (NISAR) and the prospects of collaboration of several national and international agencies for the exchange of knowledge, capacity building, and advancement in techniques and infrastructure in the Arctic.

    The second session on ‘Arctic Geopolitics’ began with a detailed introduction by Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha. The Chair highlighted that the Arctic region witnessed cooperation since the formation of the Arctic Council but has now started witnessing political fissures between the states as a result of emerging geostrategic realignments. He observed that the power shifts might possibly make the Arctic Council redundant or at best limited in its function. Calling India a Tri-Polar state, Dr. Sinha highlighted that India’s engagements in the Arctic are historic. He also referred to the classical work of the great Indian nationalist and freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak to make aware India’s civilizational connect with the Arctic region.

    Dr. Arvind Gupta, in continuation of the Chair’s remarks, emphasised the strategic importance of the Arctic, more so with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. Commenting on the Arctic Council, Dr. Gupta mentioned that the Council set up in 1996 was an important mechanism that provided a model for Arctic governance and cooperation between states in the region. He pointed out that Arctic seven (that are or will be NATO members) decision to not participate in any of the Arctic Council’s meetings under Russia’s current chairmanship has seriously impacted its functioning and that the Arctic governance structure will consequently be under severe stress. The speaker observed that China’s emerging presence in the Arctic will redefine the Arctic geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics. As NATO tries to isolate Russia in the Arctic, China-Russia cooperation would naturally tend to gather momentum. Speaking from his experience and first hand observation, Dr. Gupta elaborated on China’s emerging investments in energy, mineral resources, tourism, shipping and other related projects in the Russian Arctic. On India’s approach, the speaker asserted that India needs to develop the required polar infrastructure capabilities and should further strengthen its relations with all the Arctic states. He highlighted that India-Russia cooperation remains critical in fulfilling India’s interests in the Arctic and both countries need to take adequate steps. He recommended that the Indian Navy should ensure naval presence in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) by frequently sending its ships. Dr. Gupta concluded that if India seriously needs to take a leadership position in the world, then it needs to have positions on every major global issue. The Arctic is no exception.

    Prof. Sanjay Chaturvedi spoke on ‘Geopolitics of Connections and Disconnections in the ‘Circumpolar Arctic’: Opportunities and Challenges before India’. He emphasized that the Arctic region needs to be seen through a de-securitisation context rather than the securitisation framework. He mentioned that the region is currently witnessing re-securitisation or greater military buildups. Prof. Chaturvedi noted that the ‘Connectivity’ aspect in India’s Arctic Policy is far more important than the security aspect. By 2048, the opening up of the Northern Eurasian Rimland would enable greater connectivity between East and West via North. This could enable the northern expansion of China which, as a result, could add to greater geopolitical complexities. The speaker highlighted that India’s Arctic engagement will depend much on how India imagines the Arctic as a space and place. Since “No Country will ever own the North Pole”, it justifies India’s narrative of the Arctic as a Global Commons. While concluding, Prof. Chaturvedi noted that the Arctic will witness unilateralism, bilateralism, multilateralism and minilateralism to address emerging challenges and that the key challenge before India’s Polar diplomacy is how to translate India’s globally acclaimed Polar science achievements into geopolitical influence in pursuit of India’s national interests.

    The final session of the Seminar on ‘Capacity Building’ was chaired by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy. He emphasised the need to adopt a strategic view at the national level that increases India’s Arctic engagement.  He reiterated the importance of capacity building in promoting both strategic and scientific interests. The current challenges faced by the Arctic Council and the choice before India whether to coordinate between Russia and the Nordic states were highlighted by the Chair. He also raised the issue of the Arctic as a ‘global commons’ and the Chinese involvement in the region. Amb. Chinoy asserted that India needs its own Polar Ice Breaker vessel to support its ongoing scientific research and other related activities in the region. He further noted that as discussions on the Arctic unfold, the focus also has to be on the Antarctic Treaty System. He discussed the need to build supply chains, logistical capabilities, and for budget enhancement, and increasing domestic academic capacity and skilled workforce in the region. The Chair opined that India’s vision of ‘SAGAR’ and Blue Economy also need to be promoted in the Arctic.

    Capt. Anurag Bisen (IN) in his presentation differentiated between capacity as material adequacy and capability as possession of domain-specific expertise and skills. He opined that the two domains also differ in the timeline required to acquire them. He discussed the motives for developing capacity in the Arctic. These include the impact on monsoons and rising sea-levels subsequently leading to a migration crisis, the opening of new shipping routes, energy security and mineral wealth, and strategic contestation. Capt. Bisen added that India has legitimate credentials to facilitate cooperation in the region. Thereon, the speaker compared India’s capacity building activities with that of China, Japan, and South Korea, which became Arctic Observers in 2013 along with India. The parameters of comparison included setting up of research stations, expeditions, membership of the International Arctic Science Committee, Nordic Summits, release of national Arctic policies, and Polar research vessels. Capt. Bisen also compared the participation of the four nations in the Arctic Council Task Forces. He highlighted that India has only actively engaged with three and pointed out that thirteen Chinese institutions are affiliated with the University of Arctic, whereas NCPOR is the only institution from India. The speaker also compared Arctic-related international collaborations of India, Japan, China, and South Korea and reiterated the need for India to increase the budget for research and development. He introduced the audience to a budgetary comparison between the Polar engagements of India, South Korea, and China and opined that national academic capacity needs to be built to strengthen the contributions of India’s scientific community. He made recommendations to increase capacity and capability in the region. These included the setting up of Polar research institutions in India, the introduction of university-level programmes and increased bilateral cooperation with the Arctic states.

    In his presentation, Dr. Rahul Mohan emphasised that the impact of climate change cannot be debated and politics should not be intermingled with science. He highlighted that NCPOR’s Polar Science engagements include the Antarctic Programme, the Arctic Programme, and the Himalayan Cryosphere Programme. Other thrust areas of the NCPOR include ocean sciences, geoscience, and operations and management. He added that NCPOR runs two research stations named 'Maitri' and 'Bharati' in the Antarctic, a research station in the Indian Himalayas and the Himadri research station in the Arctic. He also presented a timeline of India’s Arctic engagement since the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920. Elaborating further, the speaker highlighted that India has undertaken fourteen expeditions to the Arctic with nearly 600 participants and noted that the major research areas include Arctic precipitation and cloud monitoring, long-term monitoring of Kongsfjorden, the impact of glacier melting, mass balance dynamics and the impact of pollutants in the region. Dr Mohan also displayed images of India’s first underwater multi-sensor mooring in the Arctic (IndARC). He added that India also utilises the Gruvebadet Atmosphere Laboratory and has contributed instruments to the facility, and that India has introduced the Polar Aerosol Network to monitor and connect the Three Poles through scientific equipment. In his recommendation, the speaker opined that a pan-Arctic approach needs to be adopted and that under India’s Arctic Policy, NCPOR is aiming to develop online courses and is conducting workshops with several academic institutions.

    The seminar ended with a formal vote of thanks by Maj Gen (Dr) Bipin Bakshi (Retd), Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA.

    Key Takeaways and Policy Recommendations

    1. The Himalayas and the Arctic are deeply connected through global climate systems, thawing of permafrost and the Indian monsoon systems.
    2. Limited knowledge about the natural processes within the climate system and the inability of climate models to reproduce accurate observations challenges scientific research in the Arctic.
    3. The Arctic region maintains immense resource potential in terms of minerals and hydrocarbon resources that India needs to factor in the near future.
    4. The ice-free Arctic will lead to several geopolitical ramifications and impact  resources, including the global fishing industry.
    5. As NATO tries to isolate Russia in the Arctic, China-Russia cooperation will strengthen.
    6. India is a Tri-Polar state and its engagements with the Arctic are prehistoric that find its acknowledgements in Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s book 'The Arctic Home in Vedas.'
    7. India's ethos of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, as mentioned in India’s Arctic Policy, displays its intent and readiness to play a global role and contribute to the global good.
    8.  ‘India’s Lifestyle for Environment’ campaign can bring in new ideas to promote sustainable development in the Arctic.
    9. India needs to develop adequate Polar infrastructure capabilities, especially a Polar research vessel or an ice-breaker ship and should further enhance its relations with all the Arctic states.
    10. India should consider increasing its budgetary allocation for Polar research. 
    11. Russia maintains the largest territorial extent in the Arctic. India-Russia cooperation in the Arctic could open new avenues for further strengthening bilateral relations between the two countries.  
    12. Cooperation with all the Arctic seven countries remains equally crucial for India to fulfil its national objectives and emphasise its independent foreign policy in the region.
    13. Indian Navy should ensure naval presence in the NSR by frequently sending its ships to the region. 

    Report Prepared by Mr. Bipandeep Sharma, Research Analyst, Mr. Pintu Kumar Mahla, Research Intern and Ms. Richa Kumaria, Research Intern, Non-Traditional Security Centre.

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