India and China in the Arctic: The New Great Game?

18 May, 2013    ·   3937

Ramesh Ramachandran discusses the geopolitical motivations that have driven the stakeholders' interest in the region

Energy rivalry took India and China first to Central Asia and then to Africa. Now, they are scrambling for resources and attendant benefits on the icy slopes of the Arctic. On 15 May 2013, the two Asian giants were made observers in the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States. The occasion caps a concerted effort by India to reach out to Nordic countries such as Iceland, whose president visited New Delhi in April this year.

The polar region is, veritably, the new hot real estate; and it is only getting hotter, quite literally, due to climate change and global warming. Melting ice caps are posing problems for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who fear for their livelihood and future; but at the same time, they are presenting opportunities like never before by opening up new sea lanes of transport and communication, and making it possible to tap hitherto inaccessible reserves of oil, gas, and minerals.

As the Arctic becomes navigable, it is opening up new avenues for mining, commercial exploitation of marine resources, and maritime commerce. But as is the wont of human history, politics manifests itself when scientific, economic, and other interests collide; so it is with the freezing environs of the Arctic too, where competing geostrategies make intergovernmental cooperation manifestly imperative. Unlike the Antarctica, which is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System of 1961 (India is a consultative party since 1983), the Arctic is only now beginning to occupy the attention of nation-states near and far.

Almost aready, it seems, everybody wants to have a say in how the region is administered. Woven into this narrative is the thinking in certain non-Arctic countries’ capitals that the Arctic belongs to all of humankind; they interpret the international Law of the Sea Convention to argue that the areas lying outside the respective national jurisdictions are open to all. Ergo, it follows that the world’s last resources must be equitably distributed and the region become more accessible to the non-Arctic countries, too.

Given its burgeoning appetite for natural resources, it is only natural and inevitable that China will show an interest in the region. However, what needs to be flagged is that much of the natural resources could already belong to the Arctic countries by virtue of their presence inside their respective exclusive economic zones. The Arctic Council’s importance should be located in this context. It intends to bring various stakeholders together for discussions on issues such as equity, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and national security. Observers do not have voting rights, but they participate in the Council’s meetings. India, China, and four other countries - Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Italy - are the newest entrants to the observers’ club.

The Communist state is eyeing the Arctic region for many reasons, including, but not limited to, the fact that a northern sea route will reduce its dependence on shipping oil and gas from West Asia through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Further, it will reduce transportation costs and increase freight volumes between Asia and Europe or the US. Not to mention the commercial benefits that will accrue. Recently, China entered into a free trade agreement with Iceland. In September 2012, China expanded its presence in the Arctic when its icebreaking vessel crossed the Arctic waters for the very first time.

There is much at stake for India, too, although it is a moot point to what extent it can gain from its foray into the Arctic. For India, energy security can be a prime motivation for venturing into this polar region; other potential areas of potential would be renewable energy and scientific pursuits. Already, India is a participant in ongoing research in the Arctic.

Welcoming the Arctic Council’s decision to grant observer status to India, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs iterated New Delhi’s “commitment to contribute our proven scientific expertise, particularly in polar research capabilities, to the work of the Arctic Council and to support its objectives.” For its part, China welcomed the observer status by saying that the decision made by the Arctic Council will facilitate China's communication and cooperation with relevant parties on Arctic affairs within the framework of the Council and promote promote peace, stability, and sustainable development of the Arctic region. The spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs said, “China supports the Council's principles and purposes, recognises Arctic countries' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic region as well as their leading role in the Council and respects the values, interests, culture and tradition of the indigenous people and other people living in the Arctic region.”

From all indications, the Arctic is an idea whose time has come, although certain grey areas merit attention. For instance, there is little clarity on the applicability of the international Law of the Sea Convention on the new sea lanes that are opening up in what Russia and Canada consider as their backyard. Also, the right to exploit the international waters for commercial or geopolitical reasons is another point of contention.