One of the most dramatic effects of global warming is seen in the Arctic region. In recent years the ice in the Arctic Sea has been melting rapidly. In 2007, a large part of the Arctic Sea became ice free in summer months for the first time in living history. The Arctic region is experiencing warming at twice the rate of global average. The melting of the ice in the Arctic Sea has had two major geopolitical impacts. One, new shipping routes between the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the East, linking Europe with Asia in the north, have opened up. These consist of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and the North West passage.
The NSR passes along Russia’s northern coast in the Arctic Sea and connects Murmansk in the West to the Bering Strait in the east. This route is more promising of the two and is being regarded as an alternative to the present shipping route connecting Europe with Asia via the Suez Canal and the piracy infested Gulf of Aden. The second route, the North West passage, will pass along the coast of Canada. But, this route is still underdeveloped unlike the NSR.
The second major geopolitical impact of the opening of the Arctic Sea is the scramble for the resources of the Arctic region. The Arctic Sea is estimated to have as much 10 to 20 per cent of the world’s oil and nearly 30 percent of natural gas. Russia and Norway have settled their maritime boundary in the Arctic Sea in 2011 and have accelerated the exploration of hydrocarbons in the region. Both have chalked out ambitious strategies for the exploration and exploitation of the ‘high north’. The Russians have also discovered oil in the permafrost region of Yamal region adjoining the Arctic sea. Has plans to invest off in the Arctic Sea on the coast of Alaska.
The territories in the Arctic Circle regions of Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland have large minerals, particularly, the iron ore. Mineral exploration and exploitation is expected to pick up as Arctic shipping develops further in the future. Apart from the minerals, the Arctic regions will emerge as a new source of fishing. The region is already being called the ‘kitchen of Europe’. The releases of new lands as a result of melting of ice will lead to development of the agriculture in the region. Polar tourism is picking up too. The small Norwegian town of Kirkenes attracts nearly 200,000 tourists in the year.
The opening of the new sea routes and the scramble for resources makes for new geopolitics. The Arctic Council, an inter-governmental forum of eight countries — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US — set up in the 1996 to deal with Arctic issues has been transformed into an active organisation where the future of the Arctic might be decided. In the last ministerial meeting held in Iceland in May, the Arctic Council decided to set up a permanent secretariat in Tromso, Norway. China wants to join the Arctic Council as observer member.
The opening of the Arctic provides for disputes over sovereignty over new territories and the freedom of navigation through the coastal waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. The Northern Sea Route passes through the waters close to the Russian coasts. The US has not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but may do so soon because of the Arctic sea’s opening up. During the cold war years, the Arctic Sea was highly militarised. The Russian Northern Fleet is based in the region along with nuclear powered submarines, ships and missiles. Norway and Canada are also paying attention to modernising their navies.
To capitalise on Arctic shipping, the Russians have already set up a North Sea Route administration which issues permits to ships wanting to transit through the route. Atomflot, a Russian organisation, provides nuclear powered ice breakers to ships transiting through the Northern Sea Route. In 2011, 34 ships used the Northern Sea Route to ship bulk cargo weighing about 800,000 tonnes like iron ore, coal and gas condensate to customers in China. This number is likely to double this year. The route, though challenging, is open for about 3 or 4 months in a year. But it saves the shipping companies about 4,000-5,000 kilometres of distance and 10-20 days of time as compared to the traditional route through the Suez Canal. China, Japan, South Korea will be the main beneficiaries of the route.
On account of the decision in oil output in the North Sea, Norway is now shifting its attention to the ‘high north’ in a big way. Both Russia and Norway have major plans to develop their respective northern regions. For them global warming has been a boon. The Arctic Region is expected to provide the next big push in the economic revival of Russia.
The ice melt in the Arctic is likely to accelerate global warming. Large amounts of methane will be released as permafrost melts. The waters of the Arctic Sea will absorb more sunlight as the ice thins down. This may affect the ocean currents which keep Europe warm. The long term impact of the Arctic ice melt may not be pleasant for the planet. India cannot remain immune from the developments in the region even though the area is remote and far away. India has a long tradition of polar research. It maintains a permanent research station in Svalbard. Much of the naval equipment India imports from Russia is based and tested in the northern regions of Russia. The opening of the sea routes and the exploration of hydrocarbons present economic opportunities which Indian companies can also exploit. On the negative side, the enhancement of economic activity in the Arctic Region will accelerate global warming and lead to large sea level rise impacting the global climate to which India cannot remain indifferent.
Whether or not India likes, the Arctic Sea is unlikely to be governed by an Antarctica type international treaty which makes the region a global common. India should remain engaged with the leading organisations like the Arctic Council where many important decisions on the future of the Arctic region will be taken. These can have direct or indirect impact on India. Indian universities and think tanks should pay greater attention to the study of analysis of the developments in the Arctic Region. If the Arctic Council takes observer members, India could make a bid for it.
Arvind Gupta is Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.