US President Donald Trump’s recent offer to buy Greenland is an indicative of the emerging geopolitics of the Arctic region, where climate change and China are fast destabilizing the status quo, throwing up political, security, legal, and environmental challenges.
Rising global temperatures are causing the frozen Arctic ocean to melt, opening up new sea routes and opportunities to extract hydrocarbons and minerals from the seabed and the newly exposed land surfaces.
Countries of the Arctic are jockeying to take advantage of these opportunities. At the same time, China declared itself a “near Arctic” country and is making determined efforts to extend its footprint in the polar region.
Chinese firms have tried to purchase large tracts of land in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. Chinese investments in Greenland’s natural resource economy might persuade the local population to secede from Denmark, creating a Laos-like Chinese satellite state between North America and Europe.
Taking into account emerging technology—where autonomous vehicles and robots can populate uninhabitable regions—the next few decades could see the Arctic emerge as a hotspot of great power competition.
As the Arctic region witnesses an unprecedented rate of ice-melt because of global warming, new routes are being opened, paving the way for untapped hydrocarbon and mineral resources to be exploited.
Unlike the Antarctic, however, the Arctic is not considered a ‘global commons’ and the principle of sovereignty prevents external players from exacting significant gains in the region.
The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental body set up in 1996 by the Ottawa declaration to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States together with the indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants.
The Council has the eight circumpolar countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland and Faroe Islands), Canada, US and Russia) as member states.
Observer status is open to Non-governmental organizations, Non-littoral states as well as to Intergovernmental and Inter-Parliamentary organizations.
India has an observer status in the council.
Two issues underlying Arctic politics.
How should the region be shared among the eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US), as there are overlapping territorial claims among them.
They have formed the Arctic Council to institutionalize their self-assigned rights, but many in China, the European Union, India and elsewhere are against conceding sovereignty to the Arctic countries.
Russia—the most important Arctic country—is both building up its military capabilities in the region and promoting the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a new artery of global shipping.
Moscow recently announced that it will impose rules on commercial and naval vessels using the route.
China has declared that it wants to be a polar great power.
India is one of the very few countries to set up a permanent station (Himadri) in the Arctic for the purposes of scientific research.
The station has been used to carry out a variety of biological, glaciological and atmospheric and climate sciences research projects in the last one decade.
So far, Indian involvement in the Arctic has centered around scientific and environmental studies, mostly in partnership with Norway. Indian and Russian energy companies have signed agreements worth billions of dollars on exploration and joint production.
India must ensure that the environment is strongly considered at the center of all debates at the Arctic Council.
India can take the lead in pursuing scientific research in the region, to understand in particular the correlation between the Arctic ice-melt and Indian monsoons.
The Russians are well aware of the Chinese risk and is therefore keen for India to get involved in the Russian Far East and the Arctic. Recent developments include liberalizing visa procedures for India to enter Vladivostok. India must explore this opportunity.
Conditions are favorable for private Indian investors to explore fresh pastures in the Siberia and further North.
While India has been active in the Arctic for over ten years, it has not fully made use of its Observer status, and it must give new energy to its activities in the region.