At the eighth meeting of the Arctic Council Ministers in Kiruna, Sweden, in May 2013, India, along with China, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, was admitted as an observer state of the eight-nation Arctic Council. Except for Italy, the new observer states are all Asian countries far away from the icy Arctic but having interest in developments in the region. Decision on the membership of the European Union was deferred due to politics arising out of Canadian objections. By this formal association, India will have an access to observe, though not influence, directly the developments in the Arctic sea region which is emerging as a new growth pole in the world. The argument whether India should join the Arctic Council as an observer member is finally settled.
The question now is how India can gain from the association and contribute to making the Arctic, in the words of the Kiruna declaration, a region of “peace, stability and constructive cooperation”. What precise role can India play is yet to be understood.
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 (Ottawa Declaration). It has eight original members — Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland — and six permanent participant organisations and many observers. Originally, the council’s main focus was to address environmental issues and the concerns of the indigenous people in the region. But in recent years, rapid melting of the Arctic ice due to global warming, opening of the shorter Arctic sea route for shipping between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during summer months and the prospects of large-scale hydrocarbons in the Arctic sea has led to “cold rush” and changed the complexion of the region.
The eight Arctic States have moved quickly to strengthen their claims on the Arctic sea region surrounding the North Pole. What should ideally have been a global common like the Antarctic barred from exportation by states is now almost an internal lake of the surrounding Arctic States. As the arctic ice melts, the unseemly rush for the exploitation of the resources of the Arctic region has begun in all earnest.
That, unfortunately, is the geopolitical reality. The accelerated melting of the ice in the Arctic will have implications for global climate as well as politics, economy and transportation. It is no surprise that countries like China, situated faraway, are keenly interested in the Arctic sea as they link it with their prosperity and security.
The Kiruna ministerial declaration brings out issues that are of immediate concern to the Arctic states. The approach adopted by the Arctic Council is to regulate the shipping lanes, hydrocarbons prospecting and the exploitation of marine resources. The Kiruna declaration has set up a number of focussed task forces to study the issues. A legally binding agreement on maritime and aeronautical search and rescue has already come into force. More such agreements can be expected in the future. This is where India, which has had a long-term scientific interest in the Arctic Sea going back to the 1920 Svalbard treaty, comes in. India can learn and even contribute to the work of the Arctic Council.
First, India has deep interest in climate change. The Kiruna declaration describes climate change as a “serious threat”. It recognises that “climate change in the Arctic causes significant changes in water, snow, ice and permafrost conditions, with cascading effects on biodiversity, ecosystems, economic and human living conditions in the Arctic with repercussions around the world”. It recommends deep cuts in CO2 and greenhouse gases’ emissions. The council wishes to be proactive in climate change negotiations. India, as a developing country and firm believer in equity, has a position very different from that of the Arctic states that are all developed states. Will India be able to sensitise these countries of its position? India can and must engage with the Arctic Council states on climate change issues.
The melting of the Arctic ice can have adverse impact on global atmospheric and oceanic circulations. Will it impact the monsoons on which India is so dependent? India also needs to study the impact of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of so many of Indian rivers. The membership of the Arctic council will provide India an opportunity to get plugged into global, cutting edge research on these issues.
Second, India which is home to a wide variety of biodiversity could gain from efforts of the council states to adopt sustainable development measures to protect their fragile Arctic environment and the indigenous people. Although India is located in a very different geography, it faces challenges such as how to preserve biodiversity, contain maritime pollution, preserve fish stocks. India can share expertise in this regard.
Third, as the Arctic sea opens up, new opportunities for shipping and energy prospecting will arise. India cannot remain indifferent as the geopolitical importance of the Arctic sea increases. India will get involved in global governance issues pertaining to the Arctic, and participation in the council will give it a chance to observe the emergence of the Arctic in this regard closely.
Observers do not have a role in decision making and their membership can be suspended if their activity is not in consonance with the principles enshrined in the Arctic Council’s documents. The Arctic Council ministers have adopted a manual of rules of engagement for observer members. It stipulates that “observers are encouraged to continue to make relevant contributions through their engagement primarily at the level of working groups”. This provides India an opportunity to take part in the meetings of various working groups. The Arctic Council has six working groups covering pollution, monitoring and assessment, conservation of fauna and flora, emergency preparedness and response, Arctic marine environment and sustainable development. India, given its scientific expertise in the Arctic, Antarctic, the Himalayas and capabilities in remote sensing, can surely contribute to the work of some of the working groups.
India’s membership of the council will boost its nascent field of Arctic research. Besides official involvement, an opportunity also comes for Indian think tanks, who should develop close co-operation with their Arctic counterparts to understand the evolution of the Arctic sea.
The author is Director General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses;