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  • The Promise of Involvement: Asia in the Arctic

    In late 2012, the first liquefied natural gas tanker to sail through the Northern Sea Route reached its destination in Japan, carrying gas from a Euro–Arctic offshore field. Only months earlier, a Korean-owned naval architecture and engineering company had won the contract for designing the long-awaited new icebreaker for Canada's coast guard, 1 and China had completed its fifth Arctic marine survey from its own ice-capable research vessel.

    July 2013

    Chachal asked: What can India do to secure its interests in Arctic?

    Uttam Kumar Sinha replies: The Arctic has heated up in many different ways. The immediate reason seems to be the heated political discussion on 'who' shall extract the oil when the ice thins and possibly disappears? 'How' will the new marine delimitation lines be drawn? 'Who' will control the new sea passage? The big question (which is quickly dismissed by the Arctic 5) is 'who' owns the Arctic? There is no Indian interest so to speak. At best it can articulate a view point on international resource governance and responsible environmental management. This voice can be expressed through various platforms none more significant than the UN Security Council. However, India should ensure that it is not left out from the expanded observer status in the Arctic Council. There is pressure from China and Brazil to expand the non-Arctic observer status to which India has also joined in. It will be a big image blow if China gets it but India does not. There are six non-Arctic countries who sit in as observers: France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, and the UK. The Arctic Council members include the Arctic 5 (Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Norway, Russia and the US) plus 3 (Finland, Iceland and Sweden).

    Vipin Garg asked: With huge potential reserves of hydrocarbon and minerals in the Arctic region, is the balance of power again tilting westwards?

    Uttam Kumar Sinha: The international system is essentially about maintaining peace through balancing power. The balance of power is almost indispensable in diplomacy and one of the greatest exponents of this has been Russia. With reference to the Arctic, where the melting of the ice is opening the seas to vast resources and fisheries as well as shorter navigational routes, ‘great power’ politics is potentially high. Competition and contestation over future stewardship and exploitation of the resources in the Arctic may well lead to stand-offs and military expansion, a throw-back to the Cold War period. Russia, therefore, is a critical player and a counterweight to any ‘balance of power tilting westwards.’ In fact a resurgent Russia will find the Arctic region a perfect ground to proclaim its power status.

    It must be remembered that the Arctic is territorial proprietorship of the 5 nations called A5 (US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark). Unlike Antarctica, which is governed by the 1959 Treaty that bans territorial claims, the Arctic region is sectorial. The odd country out in the A5 is Russia. The other 4 are NATO members with long standing Western liberal democracies and thus a natural ally. Yet Russia seems to be in a position to balance the unfavourable equation. It has greater cooperation with Norway, with which it shares border, over fishing and hydroelectricity. With Canada it cooperates on ice breakers. Oddly it is the US which seems to be maintaining a strategic silence in the A5 grouping.

    Rakesh Neelakandan asked : What should India do to secure its interests in the Arctic?

    Uttam Kumar Sinha replies: The Arctic region is estimated to hold over 40 per cent of global reserves of oil and gas. Ice melting due to global warming will open up areas for exploring and extracting resources. The race for resource, as history has shown, leads to geopolitical competition and contest. The Chinese, quickly sensing the enormous resource potential in the region, have started articulating a ‘commons’ position, that is, no nation has sovereignty over the Arctic and that the resource are for all to exploit and use. The Arctic Council compromising five littoral states – Norway, US, Canada, Denmark and Russia – would not like outside intervention and would clearly like to monopolise the resources. While the Arctic might seem not to be in India’s strategic radar, it, however, does present an opportunity to articulate a view of ecological protection that is contrary to resource scramble. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 freezing territorial claims and allowing for only research and scientific activities is a good guidepost and India should articulate this in various forums.