The Contours of India’s Arctic Policy

he Arctic has recently assumed considerable strategic significance as it has been underlined by the policies of major powers. The interests and concerns of the Arctic states are vast and varied. India, being an observer in the Arctic Council, has legitimate interests in the region and has created its own Arctic policy. India’s Arctic policy, notified as a draft document in early January 2021, continues along the lines of the country’s science diplomacy.

India’s Arctic Policy (IAP) was notified as a draft document in early January 2021, and the draft policy is in line with India’s fast expanding scientific-technological (‘SciTech’ power) status which has both national and international dimensions. As per the global ranking, India currently occupies the third position in scientific and technical manpower in the world. Its Research and Development (R&D) expenditure and Science and Technology(S&T) publications also rose significantly. With the surge in S&T publications, India is globally at the third position.1)

IAP has been drafted in a strategic milieu of big powers (like China) having invested with great ambition in the Arctic region. China’s ‘Polar Silk Road’ is essentially a part of its robust ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) which seeks to reinforce its geopolitical and geoeconomic posture in the region. India has stepped in at the right time with its ‘sustainable engagement’ diplomacy and ‘SciTech’ power in the Arctic.

There are not many institutions involved in polar studies in India. The Goa-based NCPOR, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, focuses on polar studies and research. While the Ministry of External Affairs looks after the engagements with the Arctic Council, other ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Ministry of Science and Technology, and Ministry of Space are involved in polar research.

The IAP is enunciated with five major areas of engagements—(i) Science and research; (ii) Economic and human development cooperation; (iii). Transportation and connectivity; (iv) Governance and international cooperation; and (v) National capacity building. It is clear that the IAP, apart from underlining the significance of science and research, sees the Arctic region as a potential area of engagement in diverse areas of human development and commercial activities. The document says: “India seeks to engage in economic development in a manner that is sustainable and is of value to the Arctic residents, especially indigenous communities. The Arctic offers viable opportunities in different sectors where Indian enterprises can be involved, become part of international commerce, promote traditional indigenous knowledge, businesses and best practices.”

IAP sees the Arctic as “the largest unexplored prospective area for hydrocarbons remaining on earth” besides its vast reserves of mineral deposits. It also keeps in perspective India’s investment in Russia which amounts to $15 billion in oil and gas projects. Hence India seeks to explore “similar opportunities in other Arctic nations as well”.7)

The draft policy document is also confident of utilising India’s expertise in the digital economy for facilitating establishment of data centres for commerce in the region. It further explores “opportunities for investment in Arctic infrastructure in areas such as offshore exploration/mining, ports, railways and airports.” This inevitably calls for encouraging participation by Indian public and private sector firms with an expertise in these sectors. India’s chambers of industry and commerce will be encouraged to enhance private investment in the Arctic and explore the public-private-partnership model. The draft policy also indicated that Indian companies will be encouraged to obtain membership of the Arctic Economic Council.

Another area where India has leverage in the Arctic region is human development. The document says: “Specialized cultures of the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants are being inexorably impacted by climate change as well as economic development and improved connectivity. This is similar to the socio-ecological-economic predicament of the Himalayan peoples. The disruption of unique ecosystems and erosion of traditional knowledge are common to both. India has substantial expertise in addressing such issues and is uniquely placed to make a positive contribution in assisting the Arctic’s indigenous communities cope with similar challenges”.8)

India expects that ice free conditions in the Arctic would soon result in the “opening of new shipping routes and thereby lowering costs and reshaping global trade. Traffic, especially through the Northern Sea Route, is rising exponentially and is projected to quadruple by 2025.” The draft policy also seeks to “explore the possibility of linking the International North South Transport Corridor with the Unified Deep-Water System and its further extension to the Arctic.” India expects that “the North-South connectivity will result in lowering shipping costs and overall development of the hinterland and of indigenous communities more than East-West connectivity.”

India is well aware of the fact that the Arctic governance is very crucial in the geopolitical milieu and the region itself is “governed by numerous national domestic laws, bilateral agreements, global treaties and conventions and customary laws for the indigenous peoples.” Hence the Arctic states’ “respective sovereign jurisdictions as well as areas beyond national jurisdiction” need to be reckoned within the framework of international and national regulations.

India put together the IAP at a crucial time of global and regional power realignments, even in the midst of the pandemic. It was in 2018 that China declared itself a ‘Near Arctic State’ and brought out a white paper outlining its plans for the region. Though China does not have territorial sovereignty and related sovereign rights in the Arctic, it has been eager to establish a foothold in the region with its self-professed identity as a ‘near-Arctic state.’ The strategic significance of China’s Arctic Policy (2018) outlined through its white paper cannot be glossed over. It underscores that the Arctic is a region having “global implications and international impacts.” Referring to the Arctic situation, the white paper says that the geopolitical scenario “goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind”.9) China has also gone to the extent of conceding, perhaps for the first time, that its interests in the Arctic region cannot be limited to ‘scientific research’ but would move to an array of commercial activities. This obviously becomes a part of its project to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ that links China with Europe through the Arctic and fits in with the new ‘blue ocean passages’ extending from Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR), put in place in 2013.10) A document by the European Parliament Think Tank (EPTT) says that “China’s Arctic policy suggests a strong desire to push for the internationalisation of the Arctic’s regional governance system. The white paper is not a strategy document, and is more interesting for what it omits, such as the national security dimension that is a major driver of China’s Arctic ambitions”.11) By calling itself as a “responsible major country,” China, however, tries to dispel concerns of the Arctic or non-Arctic states—about the extent of its geopolitical ambitions in the region—by emphasising Beijing’s “commitment to international law and cooperation and balancing economic interests with environmental protection” as EPTT pointed out.

The Contours of India’s Arctic Policy

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