Asia and the Arctic Opportunities and Challenges

Dr Shailesh Nayak, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, in his special address focused on the scientific issues related to the Arctic that are of special relevance to India and the Asian countries

Issue: 2 / 2015By Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd)

The 10th Annual Maritime Power Conference was held on February 19–20, 2015, under the aegis of National Maritime Foundation. ‘Asia and the Arctic: Opportunities and Challenges’ was the chosen theme for the conference. Admiral D.K. Joshi (Retd), Chairman, National Maritime Foundation, dwelled upon the significance of the Arctic region, the changing dynamics in the High North and of the emergent geopolitical and geo-economic opportunities and the challenges. The growing role of some key Asian countries as observers in the Arctic Council was also highlighted. These broad contours were later amplified and discussed in the Conference’s five academic sessions.

First Session. The first session titled ‘Evolving Dynamics in the Arctic’ focused on the geo-climatic and geophysical aspects of the Arctic. It was noted that although the Arctic sea ice is melting, there would still be sufficient ice to hinder yearround navigation for decades to come. The shrinking polar ice cap has ostensibly triggered geological surveys and subterranean resource mapping but it comes with the caveat that both exploration and exploitation costs are yet to be ascertained and that realistic assessments would be far more sobering.

Second and Third Sessions. The second and third sessions examined ‘Asian Strategies and Policies in the Arctic’. China, Japan and South Korea joined the Arctic Council as permanent observers in May 2013 and the panellists discussed respective countries’ experience as observers in the Arctic Council, their interest in the region, and highlighted the challenges affecting their engagement with the Arctic littorals.

The third session debated on India’s and Singapore’s perspectives on the Arctic. The reason behind India’s engagement in the Arctic is ‘science’; it has a vast experience of working in Antarctica which gives it an extra edge to engage in the Arctic. India’s long-term interest in the Arctic region is climate change and India is looking at scientific leadership in the Arctic. Indian scientists in the Arctic are mainly focusing on four research areas - atmospheric science studies, cryo-sphere and biogeochemical processes influencing climate change, polar environment, and ecology. To conduct these scientific expeditions in the Arctic, India is seeking multilateral cooperation, rather than bilateral ones. In this regard, India’s recent cooperation with Norway serves as a model for future cooperation with other countries in the region.

Fourth Session. The fourth session titled ‘Arctic Countries’ Perspectives on Asian Approaches’ deliberated mainly on emerging geopolitics of the region, involvement of Asian countries and the role of observers in the Arctic Council. The panel reiterated the importance of the Arctic region in terms of its natural resource wealth, i.e. hydrocarbons, minerals as well as large presence of biodiversity in the Arctic region. It was further emphasised that the settlement of Continental Shelf claims through UNCLOS was important to demarcate the territorial claims of respective countries of the region, thus establishing a possible area a ‘global commons’. It was also highlighted that the Northern Sea Route will complement the existing sea lanes rather than being a competition or a threat to their economic viability. The panel made a case for the Asian countries to make a concrete contribution in constructive diplomatic engagements in the Arctic region.

Dr Shailesh Nayak, Secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, in his special address focused on the scientific issues related to the Arctic that are of special relevance to India and the Asian countries. He highlighted the Indian connection to the Arctic stretching as far back as the 1920 Treaty of Svalbard, which gives India the status of an engaged actor since it is a successor state. In his talk, he traced the inexorable but gradual increase in India’s scientific engagements in the Arctic that started in early 1960s. The speaker was of the view that Indian research activities in polar and ice covered regions such as the Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalayas have made significant contributions to the global climate change narrative.

In his keynote address Admiral R.K. Dhowan, the Chief of the Naval Staff, stated that the current globalised architecture has brought a renewed focus to the maritime domain, where the Arctic has emerged as a new strategic frontier. He elucidated upon the resource rich nature of the region, particularly the hydrocarbons and other strategic minerals. While these developments have opened a new vista for human development, they also carry the seeds of future competition thus requiring calibrated and cooperative responses. While India may be far from the Arctic in a strict geographic sense, it has valuable stakes as a rising and responsible global maritime stakeholder.

These responsibilities cover a wide range of issues apart from the oft-quoted national self-interests. Some of these are related to ocean governance and regime building since the seas remain the vital intercontinental connect for global trade, commerce and human interactions that comprises an interesting milieu of cultural, social, political and security norms. While the competiveness among states for greater influence would exist, the present globalism was more predicated on greater cooperation, consensus and concert. In this regard, India and the Indian Navy would remain an active and engaged partner within the traditional oceanic realms and new areas of strategic importance like the Arctic.