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The northern great game

By being admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council,India has secured a toehold in a region of growing geo-economic significance

By being admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council,India has secured a toehold in a region of growing geo-economic significance

Decades ago,India surprised the world with its expedition to the Antarctic. It may have surprised many again by securing observer status at the Arctic Council (AC),a grouping of Arctic states (the US,Canada,Sweden,Norway,Russia,Denmark,Finland). For months now,the AC has been debating the issue of admitting observers to its gatherings. Last week,it decided to admit six new observers — China,India,Italy,Japan,Singapore and South Korea. The EU still awaits admittance.

While the observers have no say in the decision-making process,this inclusion is significant since the AC has given up its purely geographic self-definition and has factored in geo-economic elements. After all,the economic rise of China and India is bound to impact on the Arctic region,through both global warming and their widening maritime footprint and interest in the Arctic’s vast oil and gas resources.

The melting of the polar ice-caps and the opening up of the yet unexplored mineral rich Arctic frontier to navigation and subsequent exploration have compelled countries such as China and India to look northwards and seek observer status. The quest,however,has been far from smooth as the AC was divided on opening its doors to geographical outsiders. While the Nordic countries were in favour of internationalising the Arctic,Russia and Canada,which control more territory,were opposed to the move. Interestingly,the Obama administration did not have a clear stand even as Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Kiruna for the AC meeting last week. However,according to media reports,Kerry was instrumental in brokering a compromise on observer countries. While China asserted that it had a stronger claim,given its geographical proximity to the Arctic and its recent forays into the North Sea,India’s admission may well have been made possible by the US,Canada and Russia taking the view that if China had to be admitted,let the Indians in too!

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With the thawing of the Arctic,thanks to global warming,the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is seen as a viable option for north-east Pacific countries to reach the Atlantic. It would reduce the cost and time of travel considerably. In 2010,only four ships carrying 1,11,000 tonnes of cargo took the northern passage. The number rose to 46 ships carrying 1.26 million tonnes last year.

China has aggressively made inroads by pursuing individual countries. Iceland has emerged as a partner of choice for China. Apart from the Arctic’s natural resources and India’s interest in shaping policies that would impact on climate change and glacier melting,the Arctic has a strategic relevance to India. As Defence Minister A.K. Antony told a conference of the National Maritime Foundation last year,China’s ability to navigate the NSR would have implications for Indian strategy. Indian military strategy has so far been based on the assumption that if China commits aggression across the Himalayas,India could exert pressure on China in the Indian Ocean by blocking off the Malacca Straits and choking Chinese energy supplies. China’s attempt to secure oil by land-based pipelines through Central Asia and Pakistan is a response to this threat perception. However,the NSR opens up the possibility of China accessing oil from the north.

Clearly,a new “Great Game” is afoot in the Arctic and India has now secured a toehold. In an essay,the convenor of India’s National Security Advisory Board and former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has pointed out that the “…developments in the Arctic Ocean will redraw the geopolitical map of the world.” This should compel emerging countries such as India and China


to out the Arctic region on their international agendas. Saran also raised a pertinent question: “There is currently a shift in the centre of gravity of the global economy from the trans-Atlantic to Asia Pacific. Will there be a reversal of this shift back to the trans-Atlantic via the Northern Tier?” This may well define the future actions of the AC,which will hold its next meeting in 2015 in Canada. While the ministry of external

affairs issued a statement welcoming AC observer status,the need is to utilise this opportunity and be an active participant in decisions on not only the global ecology

but also the global political economy and distribution of political power.


The writer is research officer,Geo-economics and Strategy Programme,International Institute for Strategic Studies

First published on: 21-05-2013 at 12:04:10 am
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