In the footsteps of its rival China, India is gearing up to get a foothold in the freezing Arctic region as the rapidly melting icebergs open up new trade routes and access to its rich hydrocarbon and mineral resources.
“India will apply for being a permanent observer in the Arctic Council,” a senior Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official told Express.
The eight-nation Arctic Council, formed in 1996, is the main forum to discuss governance issues related to the Arctic, ranging from protection of the climate, scientific research, as well as access to resources. The members are Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, the United States, Sweden and Finland. It has seven non-Arctic countries as permanent observers, all of them from Europe.
India has had a long tradition of polar research in the Arctic region, with its permanent research station Himadri opened in 2008. So far, three science and technology ministers have visited the remote station since then - the last being P K Bansal in May 2011. The climatic conditions of the Arctic have also a direct impact on the monsoons, which governs India’s economy even in the 21st century.
But, it’s the opening of the new sea routes due to the fast melting polar ice caps which has led to heightened interest in the region. These new Arctic shipping routes between Asia, America and Europe could be potentially 40 per cent faster than those in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
More significantly, Arctic is also estimated to have 10 to 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. India’s ONGC reportedly wants to have a stake in new oil and gas projects announced by Russia on the Arctic shelf.
The Indian interest has to be also seen in the context of China aggressively bidding for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council. The Chinese have organised several high-profile expeditions to the Arctic Circle and opened its research station there in 2004. Beijing had become an ad-hoc observer of the Arctic Council in 2007.
Last week, China announced that an icebreaker, Snow Dragon, had become the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic ocean in three-month mission, to survey the sea lanes and climate conditions.
The MEA and the Ministry of Earth Sciences have been holding internal consultations on the best way to go forward to concretise the application. “We have to make a case for India’s application, pointing out that we meet all the seven conditions for being a permanent observer,” said the official.
The next ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council is in May 2013, when Canada will take over its chairmanship for the next two years. It will decide on the applications for permanent observers by several countries, including China, Brazil, South Korea and the European Union.
India also would like to submit its bid before the ministerial meeting, which will allow the member countries to decide their stance and also provide enough time for lobbying. The next important meeting is of senior Arctic Council officials in Sweden in November.
One of the more contentious criteria was that permanent observers had to “recognise Arctic states’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic.”
There were some voices that India should not accept the sovereignty of the littoral nations on the arctic, but rather push for the application of the template of the Antarctic treaty which treats it as “global commons”.
But, MEA officials said that this was considered, but found to be not applicable as the geographies of the two polar regions are completely different.
“Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, while the Arctic is basically an ocean, surrounded by land masses,” noted a senior official.
Interestingly, following China’s bid to become permanent observer, there has been opposition from some countries, especially Norway, on the grounds that the entry of large countries will eventually led to diminishing role of the founder members.