The Arctic region is home to almost four million inhabitants, of which approximately one-tenth are indigenous people. The United States Geological Survey estimates that up to 25-30% of the world’s remaining oil and natural gas resources might be held within the Arctic Region. The five littoral states, Canada, Russia, USA (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, have competing claims over the Arctic. Together with the five Arctic littoral states, three regional states, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, constitute the eight-member Arctic Council. The Arctic is considered the final frontier for the human to conquer. Resource competition and human migration will become facts of life in the Arctic region as the snow melts. Economic and mercantile competition among nation states for natural resources is bound to result in strife and conflict at some point in time. Every nation must secure its strategic interests.
China has steadily increased its footprint in the Arctic for the last decade. China’s lust for the Arctic mineral and live-stock resources has been universally noted. China was approaching the Arctic region surreptitiously in a deceitful manner while trying to obtain a physical toehold. China obtained observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 along with India, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. China’s original application was denied in 2012 owing to objections from Norway. China touts itself as a “near-Arctic state”. The northernmost point in China is 5,000 kilometers away from the centre of the Arctic Circle. If Chinese rationale for “Near-Arctic State” is accepted; several others will also qualify this distinction. China released a so-called white paper on its Arctic policy in 2018, startling not only the Arctic littoral states but also rest of the world. China’s so-called white paper is highly verbose and dense with redundancies and focuses primarily on geo-political issues, while advocating China’s right to exploiting the mineral and hydrocarbon reserves and fisheries. In characteristic Chinese arrogance, it has linked its involvement with the Arctic region to the “Belt and Road Initiative” and its subsidiary “Polar Silk Road”. Chinese posturing has led to renewed interest of the US in the Arctic region. Former US President Donald Trump had offered to purchase Greenland from Denmark. The US policy establishment is now in the process of defining Chinese strategic threats in the Arctic. Almost all branches of the US armed forces have released their Arctic Strategy documents. US Army has been training to develop appropriate capabilities to compete and deter conflict in the Arctic region while emphasizing creation of an “Arctic ready” force.
China already controls 90% of world’s trade in rare earth and mineral resources. China is investing heavily into projects in every Arctic country. China’s investments in cash-strapped Iceland, vulnerable Greenland and Canadian Arctic communities are predatory and mercantile in nature. China attempted to buy land for dubious purposes in Iceland in 2011, but attempts were rebuffed by the Icelandic PM. China signed a bilateral energy accord with Iceland in 2012 and a bilateral free trade agreement in 2015. Chinese investment of $1.2 billion into Icelandic economy during 2012-17 constituted almost 6% of its GDP during that period. Chinese investments focusing on mineral extraction, including rare earth minerals, iron, copper and uranium totalled $2.0 billion, constituting 12% of the GDP of Greenland during 2012-17. China has built a satellite station in northern Sweden and invested in Finland as part of its Polar Silk Road. China’s growing interest in the Canadian Arctic (40% of Canadian landmass) is a calculated move to access and control the abundant deposits of oil, gas and minerals. In 2017, Chinese icebreaker XueLong (aka Snow Dragon) made its first passage through the Northwest Passage, which Canada recognizes as its internal waters. China’s second commercial research icebreaker Xuelong2 (Snow Dragon 2) became fully operational in 2019. China is in the process of developing a nuclear-powered icebreaker. In 2013, China acquired Nexen, a Calgary-based oil and gas company for $15.1 billion that transferred a portion of Alberta’s oil-sands wealth to China. China is focusing on investments into mining in Canadian Arctic provinces, while the joint Canada-US moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic ocean is due for review later in 2021. Since 2014, Russia and China have entered into a marriage of convenience. China invested billions of dollars into extracting energy sources from beneath the permafrost on the Yamal peninsula in Northern Russia.
China has inserted itself into the Arctic governance by creating parallel institutions to the Arctic Council. In 2013, Icelandic President, after signing bilateral FTA with China, announced the creation of the Arctic Circle conference, an annual open meeting in Reykjavik on Arctic governance. China harps repetitively on the basic principles of “respect”, “cooperation” “sustainability” and “win-win results” and honouring international laws, especially the UN Charter, UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas), treaties on climate change and the rules of the IMO (International Maritime Organization). China has tendency to not respect international treaties as it bides for its time to dictate the terms to others. China flouted the rulings of the UNCLOS in other maritime theatres e.g., Scarborough Shoal in conflict with the Philippines and the EEZ norms in the South China Sea. China is likely to invoke the “concept of respect” in its future flouting of international norms related to the Arctic.
I had earlier predicted in 2013 China’s intention to obtain military bases in Iceland and Greenland. China attempted to buy a defunct US naval base in Greenland and wanted to refurbish the airport outside Nuuk, Greenland’s capital and two other airfields for $550 million. The Danish government openly expressed its concern at China’s interest in the autonomous, self-governing territory of 57,000 population and vast array of natural resources. The US and Denmark finally blocked Chinese investment in dual use facilities in Greenland. Chinese analysts have suggested a deceptive four-point action plan to incrementally expand Beijing’s strategic security footprint in the Arctic. While building military capacity, China will camouflage the strategic interests by providing humanitarian “public goods” services such as maritime and aeronautical search-and-rescue and disaster relief to Arctic littoral and user states.
There is renewed interest in India’s role, scientific activities and policy towards the Arctic region following publication of a draft policy by the Ministry of External Affairs. India’s interest in the Arctic research is mainly because of her own climatic change concerns. There is an intricate link between conditions in the Arctic and the monsoon and the Himalayan systems. Himalayas are like the third pole besides the North Pole and the South Pole. India’s Arctic policy should be grounded on pragmatic geo-political realities and be predicated on projections for the next hundred years. India should not be left out in the global competition for Arctic resources sheerly because of strategic myopia and inertia in formulating long-term policies. There must be a strategic focus on threat perception, threat analysis, capacity assessment and developing appropriate counter capabilities. We recommend adopting a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats) analysis model prior to finalizing the policy.
India’s Arctic Policy rests on five pillars: science and research; economic and human development cooperation; transportation and connectivity; governance and international cooperation; and national capacity building. India’s involvement with the Arctic region started in 1920 when the Svalbard treaty was signed in Paris. In 2007, India’s first scientific expedition to the Arctic was launched. The Himadri station on the Svalbard island has been operating since 2008. India does not have any physical anchor points in the Arctic region. India should target investments primarily into Greenland, Iceland, Russia (Siberia region) and in the Canadian Arctic regions. Our investments in Iceland can help spur Arctic tourism industry. India should invest in mining sector, hydrocarbons, fisheries and arctic tourism sectors in the Canadian Arctic provinces. India should follow a public-private-partnership (PPP) model. We must encourage exports and investment of human resources into the Arctic economies. Indian mining companies should be given tax incentive to invest in mining in Greenland and Iceland. Public sector companies like Metal and Minerals Trading Corporation of India should take lead in mining investment. Airports Authority of India, Inland Waterways Authority along with Land Port Authority of India must leverage with private Indian companies in developing infrastructure in the Arctics. The Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways must develop a joint “Arctic Infrastructure Group”. Ministry of Fisheries, Animal husbandry and Dairying should prepare a blueprint for fishing and use of marine mammals and livestock in the Arctic region.
The National Center for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), the nodal agency for India’s Arctic Studies and research should sign partnership agreement with the International Arctic Science Committee. Indian researchers working on “Arctic Science” should be encouraged to participate in the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW). India should participate in all the international institutions on Arctic Science studies to build bilateral and multilateral partnerships amongst institutions, research groups and academicians. International academic exchange programs, fellowship program and grant applications should be encouraged. India should expand her trained manpower in the services sector backed by English speaking skills in maritime insurance, chartering, arbitration and brokerage activities. Indian universities and technological institutions should start degree courses and PhD programs on “Arctic Studies”.
The polar icecap is shrinking fast and since 1980, the volume of the Arctic Sea ice has declined as much as 75%. While the northern sea route is likely to become ice-free by 2050, commercial shipping is possible even now during the summer. India has a strong sea-faring tradition. Transportation and connectivity will be harbinger of tourism to the Arctic region. India needs to remain vigilant about access to navigational and shipping infrastructure in the Arctic region. The need is to strengthen nautical training institutions for training polar/ice navigation and build region specific hydrography capacity and skills necessary to undertake Arctic transits. India must enhance the technical capabilities for the NavIC navigational system to assist with accurate real-time positioning in the Arctic seas.
Indian government should immediately apply for observer status as a non-voting member with the Arctic Economic Council (AEC). The AEC is open to corporations, partnerships and indigenous groups that have an economic interest in the Arctic. Since the AEC welcomes the participation of other stakeholders from across the globe as non-voting members. Organizations like FICCI, ASSOCHAM and other business chambers should be encouraged to join as observers with the AEC. India should host an annual meeting of the Arctic Circle conference. India should invite Prime Ministers of Iceland and Greenland for developing stronger bilateral political, economic and commercial ties. Ministry of External Affairs must create a separate desk for Arctic states and North Pole region. India must develop a de jure and de facto presence on the ground in the Arctic in order to have a locus standi. India should foster five plus one, three plus one and eight plus one meeting formats with our Arctic partners in various international fora.
The September 2019 joint statement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok acknowledged India’s wish to play a greater role in the Arctic Council, and to cooperate more closely with Moscow in the Arctic Affairs. Perhaps, India should consider collaboration with Russia in developing its own nuclear-powered icebreaker to increase the speed in ice-packed waters.
India’s armed forces should look into the possibility of creating an integrated “Arctic command”. Indian Army’s cash-starved mountain strike corps should be fully funded in order to become an “Arctic-capable” corps. Opportunities to train jointly with other Arctic nations’ armies should be sought. Incidentally, Indian Coast Guard must participate in the Arctic Coast Guard Forum on a regular basis. We recommend that the Ministry of Defence and the Indian armed forces produce a separate strategic and security policy document to define and meet challenges in Arctic geopolitics.
We must also invest India’s soft power in the Arctic states. Civil society organizations should be encouraged to foster people to people relations with the indigenous communities whose way of life and survival itself is at stake. Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Indian Council for Social Sciences Research, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan must jointly organise an annual conference highlighting the challenges faced by the indigenous communities in the Arctic region and device solutions.
Our Arctic region policy should include fostering global, regional, multilateral and bilateral alliances with Arctic littoral states, Arctic regional states and friendly near-Arctic states. The policy must not neglect the ongoing geopolitical competition and great power rivalry in the Arctic region and prepare India for future challenges. Militarization of the Arctic is a reality and can’t be swept under the carpet by wishful thinking.
Dr A. Adityanjee is President, The Council for Strategic Affairs.