If China and Russia dominate the Arctic trade routes and resources, will the Indo-Pacific lose its relevance? One of the less publicised reasons for India’s refusal to call out Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is New Delhi’s deep strategic and economic interests in the Arctic Circle, which also appears to be high on the Chinese priority list. The hostile, mostly ice-bound (but rapidly melting) environment most of the year, is believed to hold anything between three to 25 percent of the world’s oil and gas resources and if one were to add minerals, fresh water and seafood to that list, the Arctic region may hold over 20 percent of the Earth’s remaining natural resources.
Apart from being extremely resource rich, the region is expected to become ice-free by 2050 due to global warming, opening up a polar sea route which would radically change global transport networks, and by default, trade and commerce. Of course, the melting ice would lead to immense environmental changes too with rising sea levels threatening low lying coastal regions, as well as extreme changes in the weather, impacting food and water security worldwide. On March 17 this year, three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, India released its Arctic Policy. Titled ‘India’s Arctic Policy: Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development’, the 27-page document (available at https://www.moes.gov.in/sites/default/files/2022-03/compressed-SINGLE-PAGE-ENGLISH.pdf) attempts to underline India’s stakes in the region, even though the Arctic Circle is at least 3,446 km away from India’s Northernmost point, IndraCol, the Northern tip of the Siachen Glacier.
Barely two weeks earlier, on March 04, 2022, the Arctic Council, the leading inter-governmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic, had paused all official meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies till a decision was taken on Russia, one of the eight Arctic states and the rotating council chair from 2021 to 2023. The other Arctic states are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States (US). The Council also has 13 non-arctic states as observers including India and the People’s Republic of China, both admitted at the Council’s ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013. Observers participate in the Council’s meetings, but do not have voting rights. And to be considered for observer status, those requesting it must recognise the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the ‘Arctic States’ and global legal norms such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). At the insistence of the US, the Council had agreed that it “should not deal with matters related to military security.”
Russia, which dominates the Arctic region by virtue of its size as it sits on over half the coastline of the Arctic Ocean, and Russians comprise more than half the population of the region, has been ramping up its military infrastructure and even testing its latest high-tech weapons in the region. Satellite images indicate that Russia has also been expanding its air and coastal defence missile systems and buttressing its anti-access and area-denial capabilities over major sections of the region. Apart from refurbishing Soviet-era airfields and radar installations, constructing new ports and search-and-rescue centres, it is also building up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally-powered icebreakers.
In April last year, US experts expressed concern over the testing of Russia’s newest weapons in the region, particularly a ‘super weapon’ known as the Poseidon 2M39, an unmanned nuclear-powered stealth torpedo which could sneak past coastal defences on the sea floor. CNN quoted the head of Norwegian intelligence, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, as saying that his agency has assessed the Poseidon as “part of the new type of nuclear deterrent weapons. And it is in a testing phase. But it is a strategic system and it is aimed at targets… and has an influence far beyond the region in which they test it currently.” The US television network also said that satellite images provided “by space technology company Maxar detail a stark and continuous build-up of Russian military bases and hardware on the country’s Arctic coastline, together with underground storage facilities likely for the Poseidon and other new high-tech weapons. The Russian hardware in the High North area includes bombers and MiG-31BM jets and new radar systems close to the coast of Alaska.”
“The Russian build-up has been matched by NATO and US troop and equipment movements. American B-1 Lancer bombers stationed in Norway’s Ørland air base have recently completed missions in the Eastern Barents Sea, for example. The US military’s stealth Seawolf submarine was acknowledged by US officials in August 2021 as being in the area,” it added. There is clearly a military challenge from the Russians in the Arctic. That has implications for the US and its allies, not least because it creates the capacity to project power up to the North Atlantic,” CNN quoted a state department spokesman as saying.
New Delhi, however, is more worried about the long term strategic implications of Sino-Russian dominance of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – a shipping lane that runs between Norway and Alaska, along Russia’s Northern coast, across to the North Atlantic. US officials said Moscow’s demand that any foreign vessel using that route seek Russian permission and have a Russian pilot onboard to ‘guide’ it, violates international law and vessels that accepted these rules would only strengthen Russia’s hand.
India imports most of its energy needs from the Gulf region (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE).and of late, the US, with Russia accounting for just about one percent although ONGC has acquired rights to a few wells in the Russian Far East in an attempt to diversify its crude oil and LNG sources. However, the Chennai-Vladivastok maritime corridor through the South China Sea, revived with much fanfare during the India-Russia Summit of 2019 and expected to cut the current 40-day journey via the European route to 24, is yet to takeoff, while only certain sections of the multi-modal International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), launched in 2000 by India, Iran and Russia, are operational. India’s offer of a $1-billion line of credit for the development of Russia’s Far East to encourage Indian companies set up shop there, has not had many takers either.
Europe, on the other hand, imports almost 30 percent of its oil and gas from Russia, with the US (9%), Norway (8%), Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom (7% each) Kazakhstan and Nigeria (6% each) supplying the rest. After the sanctions imposed by the West on Russia in 2014, cooperation between Russia and China in the commodities and oil and gas sectors, particularly pipeline projects in the Russian Far East, took off rapidly. China also wants to develop and run ports and allied infrastructure along the Northern Sea route, which will cut maritime distance from Shanghai to Rotterdam by 10 to 12 days or by 30 to 40 per cent compared to the Suez Canal route. In a White Paper published in January 2018, China described itself as a ‘Near Arctic’ state despite its Northernmost tip being almost 1,500km away from the Arctic Circle. Defining its position on the region, it pledged, “To understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic so as to safeguard the common interests of all countries and the international community in the Arctic and promote sustainable development in the Arctic.”
However, the paper also made clear that while Beijing respects the sovereign rights of the eight Arctic states, the Arctic region is a globally shared “community with a shared future for mankind”. And therefore, as a “near-Arctic state” China had certain legitimate rights –including the right to explore and exploit natural resources in the Arctic high seas – which should be respected by the international community. Other rights include fishing, navigation and over flights through and above these seas, lay submarine cables and pipelines and conduct ‘scientific research’ in the region. This attempt to ‘internationalise’ the Arctic’s regional governance system is obviously aimed at shoring up Beijing’s plans for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ linking China with Europe through the Arctic, an extension of President Xi Jinping’s grand Maritime Silk Road/Belt and Road Initiative.
But the paper’s attempt to project China as a “responsible major country,” committed to international law including the UNCLOS and environmental protection are clearly at odds with Beijing’s 2106 rejection of the UNCLOS’ Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against Chinese maritime claims on South China Sea waters also claimed by the Philippines, as well as the indictment for environmental damage caused by China’s massive artificial island-building in those waters. Clearly, Beijing supports international laws only if they favour the Chinese position and summarily ignores and rejects them when they do not.
China, which shares a 4,300-km long border with Russia, can easily import commodities from Russia and India’s unease grows as the Western sanctions push the two countries into a deeper economic and political embrace. New Delhi’s draft Arctic Policy originally focused on climate change and scientific research when it was released for public review a couple of years ago. But the paper released in March this year, clearly indicates that it has not forgotten its economic and strategic interests. This attempt to balance its energy needs with global warming, international cooperation, capacity building and geopolitics, however, might be too little and too late. The Indian policy paper rests on six pillars, identified as Science and Research, Economic and Human Development, Transportation and Connectivity, Governance and International Cooperation, National Capacity Building, Climate Change and Environmental Protection.
The document also stresses India’s need to study and understand the linkages between the glaciers in Arctic and those in the Himalayas, often described as the Third Pole. Climate change also impacts and the monsoons. Given that India is almost totally dependent on the Himalayan glaciers and the monsoons for its agricultural needs, any changes in these would jeopardise the country’s food, water and economic security. Given India’s research facilities in both the North and South Poles as well the Himalayas, India projects itself as a ‘tripolar’ state and plans to study and harmonise the data available from these three regions and share this research with the Arctic states and other stakeholders.
However, despite having conducted 41 research expeditions to the Antarctic and 13 in the Arctic, India is yet to build or acquire a Polar Research Vehicle (PRV) and is thus dependent on charters. China, on the other hand, has two large PRVs with advanced icebreaking capabilities and sophisticated equipment. While the MV Xue Long (Snow Dragon) is an ice-strengthened cargo ship purchased from Ukraine in 1993 and modified for polar use, MV Xuelong 2 is an indigenously-built ‘Polar Class-3’ vessel which can plough through 1.5-metre layers of ice, and accommodate two helicopters. China is also building a nuclear-powered icebreaker and a 100,000-tonne semi-submersible heavy lift vessel.
The Indian document also pledges ISRO’s help to provide effective satellite-enabled communication and digital connectivity in remote areas in the Arctic, similar to the geo-stationary communication and meteorological South Asia Satellite, earlier known as the SAARC Satellite. It also discusses the NASA-ISRO collaborative mission NISAR which will be launching a satellite to study Earth-changing ecosystems, ice mass, sea-level rise due to climate change and more, intended for ‘better management of the natural resources and hazards globally, including the Arctic.’ There are concerns in New Delhi that the Sino-Russian dominance of the NSR and China’s subsequent ability to use that route instead of the Pacific for most of its trade and commerce, may force the US to shift its focus from the Indo-Pacific to the Arctic. This would give China the ability to reduce or even eliminate its dependence on the Malacca Strait, denying India its main leverage in the region. The Northern sea route might not dilute the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, but by virtue of being able to bypass it as and when needed, China would definitely gain an immense economic and strategic advantage. Whether it will be allowed to do so, however, remains to be seen.
Some Cold Facts
- The Arctic Circle, an imaginary line drawn around the Northernmost tip of the Earth, is around 16,000km in circumference and covers 20,000,000 sq km, or about 4 percent of the Earth’s surface.
- Mostly massive swathes of pack ice floating on the Arctic Ocean, the circle also has glaciers, coastal wetlands, mountains, rivers, and the sea itself.
- Covering about 14 million sq km, the Arctic is the world’s smallest ocean, but still about one and half times the size of the US.
- Only four million people, half of them Russian, live within the circle. The US population is 327 million.
- Eight countries from three continents –Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and the US, have borders within the circle and are members of the Arctic Council.
- The Arctic Circle is home to spectacular range of species ranging from Polar bears, gray whales, Narwhals and killer whales, Pacific salmon, brown bears, walruses, Arctic hares, wolves and foxes, puffins, Arctic terns, snowy owls and bearded seals, to name just a few.
- The name ‘Arctic’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bear’. Not the polar bear, but the constellations in the northern sky of the PArctic: ‘Ursa Minor’ (Little Bear) and ‘Ursa Major’ (Great Bear).
- If one were to include oil and gas, hydrocarbons, minerals, fresh water and seafood, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s natural resources lies within the Arctic Circle.
- While rampant exploitation of these resources exposed by melting ice does pose a major threat, the biggest threat to the region is global warming.
- Melting ice has made the region’s abundant mineral deposits and oil and gas reserves more accessible by ship.
- China is investing heavily in the increasingly ice-free Northern Sea Route over the top of Russia, which promises to cut shipping times between the Far East and Europe by 10 to 15 days.
- The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago could soon yield another shortcut. And in Greenland, vanishing ice is unearthing a wealth of uranium, zinc, gold, iron and rare earth elements.
- We are losing Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13 percent per decade and over the past 30 years, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has declined by a whopping 95 percent. At this rate, the Arctic could be ice-free by the summer of 2040.
- If the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely, global sea levels could rise 20 feet, threatening coastal regions worldwide, cause massive and erratic changes in weather and impact global food and water security. (WWF, NASA, Scientific American, and other sources)