India is engaged in hectic lobbying with several leaders and governments for the last two months to become a permanent observer to the Arctic Council. But the success hinges not just on meeting the set criteria, but increasingly on how the council members deal with applications of other candidates, mainly China and the European Union (EU).
India submitted its application to the current chair of the eight-member Arctic Council in November last year and also followed it up with a larger document in December, which provided a detailed case for India’s engagement with the small group of littoral Arctic nations. Interestingly, at least 14 applications from different countries are pending before the council, with China having made its case way back in 2006. South Korea, Japan and Singapore are the other Asian contenders.
The ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council is scheduled for May, when the eight nations will take a decision on the applications. Canada is set to take over the chair from Sweden at this ministerial meeting.
The Ministry of External Affairs has been spearheading the lobbying effort with foreign offices of all the members, especially with nations with close bilateral ties such as Russia. While Indian Ambassadors are lobbying in the capitals of the council members, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had discussed India’s suitability during the visit of the Canadian PM and Russian President in November and December, respectively.
“We have got a good feedback from all the countries. We are making our best effort, but ultimately there is no guarantee on the final decision,” said a senior government official.
“It will ultimately be a political decision taken by individual members, based on their own interests,” he said. Many of the applicant countries are wary that China is looking to carve out a larger role in the northern polar region. “The Chinese seem to be more driven by commercial interests, with the shipping lines opening up due to the melting of Arctic ice,” the official said.
Chinese icebreaker ‘Snow Dragon’ was its first vessel to make an Arctic crossing, joining 45 other ships last year -- a big leap from just four ships to take this route in 2010. The melting ice cap has also raised expectations of increased oil and gas exploration in the region.
But China has strained relations with Norway, ever since the 2010 Nobel Prize was announced for jailed writer Liu Xiaobo.
Last December, Norway was left out conspicuously from the list of EU countries, whose citizens could transit through China without visa.
On the other hand, Canada has doubts about the entry of the EU with both having clashed over the latter’s ban on seal products. It had argued that the EU ban on commercial hunt products was adversely affecting the livelihood of the aboriginals in the polar region.
“It will be difficult to admit one country and not admit another. While all members have told us that they have no problem with our (India’s) candidature, we have to see how the council members are looking at individual countries…. If they have a problem with a country’s application, they may put the entire process on hold again,” the senior official said.
In the document for its case for engagement, India had laid stress on the key role played by northern polar regions on the intensity of monsoon in the subcontinent -- a subject of research by various scientific institutions. Besides asserting that it met all the criteria for being a permanent observer, India had maintained that it fully accepted the sovereign rights of the countries to the Arctic region under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.