Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Arctic: India’s Engagement in the Arctic Desired

By Shastri Ramachandaran*
Courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

COPENHAGEN (IDN) - The race for a share of the enormous reservoirs of fossil fuel – an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil alone – beneath Greenland’s ice sheet in the Arctic Circle is heating up. While the good news is that climate change, which is making the polar ice cap melt, may not be altogether bad because of the economic prospects it holds out, the bad news is that India appears to be nowhere in this emerging global game.

Some four years after the U.S. Geological Survey came out with its estimates of huge oil and gas reserves in the region, periodically, in ways big and small, the stakes are being raised by the ‘Arctic Five’ – Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark (including self-governed Greenland and Faroe Islands that comprise the Danish Commonwealth) and the United States – as well as of the Arctic Council which includes three more countries in the Arctic Circle, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

Other countries, including India but especially China, are in no mood to let these eight states get away with the Arctic as their property. A number of powerful nations are pressing the point that in the emerging global order, geography cannot be the sole determinant of rightful access to common resources.

The 90 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Arctic represent 13% of the world’s oil resources. Besides, 30% of the world’s gas resources are also estimated to be in an area around the North Pole, which covers more than a sixth of the planet’s surface. Much of this area, over which Greenland reigns supreme, is also rich in minerals, such as gold, zinc, iron, copper, diamonds, rubies and several rare earth elements.

It is hardly a coincidence then that Greenland is emerging as a highly sought-after political, strategic and military prize. A recent report by a U.S. think tank projects the possibility of Greenland, which gained self-rule in 1979, breaking away from the Kingdom of Denmark.

In 2007, Russia planted its flag on the North Pole’s seabed by using a robot. But, the question of who ‘owns’ the North Pole is unlikely to be resolved by such acts. The suspicion that the U.S. think tank’s study might be aimed at injecting tensions in Greenland-Denmark relations and that the dispute between Canada and Denmark over the Arctic island of Hans is being fanned by third parties underscore how every player with a stake in the region will do everything to keep alive the focus on conflicting claims to parts of the Arctic.

‘Rising India’

In this scenario, it is high time New Delhi woke up to the expectations from a ‘Rising India’. Be it Denmark, Sweden or Norway, in their capitals they want visible Indian engagement. As a country interested in a permanent place in the UN Security Council, it requires to be seen in the intensive behind-the-scenes exercises to shape the future of the Arctic. The issues involved go beyond legal rights and the Law of the Sea; and, may eventually be resolved by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Of the Arctic Five, India’s relations with Denmark are at its worst, and, with friend Russia, disagreements over the aircraft carrier Gorshkov are symptomatic of unresolved issues clouding the atmosphere. India is deeply engaged with the U.S., but that is unlikely to help its interests in the Arctic. Canada has not been cultivated in this context. That leaves Norway as the one state which can aid and advance the Indian cause, but also help rope in Sweden and Finland.

Much as these countries prefer China for doing economic business, when it comes to the political, the strategic and the military, they would want India to take a more active role in international affairs.

More than one observer emphasised the need for India to raise its profile, and not only with a view to balancing China’s sure-footed moves at becoming an Arctic power.

In the last 10 years, Greenland has granted a score of exploration and development licences to oil and gas biggies. Although feasibility of commercial exploitation of oil, gas in the region is in question, the U.S. and Canada have been exploring and drilling in these parts for over 40 years.

New Delhi may flatter itself that it has a place at the high tables of the world, but the opinion in Scandinavia is that it should venture far and farther afield to the new sites of contest such as the Arctic seabed.

This view was backed by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in a study published in September 2011, calling upon India and other developing countries not to leave "the issue of the Arctic's future to the developed countries." The first step in this regard, it said, would be for India to become an ad hoc observer to the Arctic Council. At the same time, he advised the "strategic community" in India to take the lead in articulating and debating the idea of including the Arctic in the discourse on global commons.

*The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator visiting Denmark at the invitation of the Danish Cultural Institute. A version of this article appeared in Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and this is being published by arrangement with the writer. [IDN-InDepthNews – November 12, 2012]

Image: Painting from the front cover of the Ottawa declaration by Ted Harrison