India’s Observer Status in the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic. It was set up in 1996. It has eight member nations viz. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and United States. There are 12 countries with Observer status in Arctic Council. They are China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom

Several countries have been engaging with the Arctic Council in one way or the other though they are not even part of the Arctic region. Many countries including India, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore etc. had expressed their interest in joining the Arctic Council as observers. As a result, Arctic Council had in 2013 decided to include six new observers – China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

  • India has welcomed this step saying it would contribute its scientific expertise, particularly its polar research capabilities, to the work of the Arctic Council to support its objectives.
  • However, this has the geopolitical implications as well.
  • The Geo-economic Significance of Arctic Council
  • The Arctic region is experiencing global warming at twice the rate of global average. The consequent melting of ice has led to two major geopolitical impacts: Firstly, opening up of new shipping routes between Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
  • Secondly, the scramble for resources of the Arctic region. It is estimated that as much as 10 to 20 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of natural gas is present in the Arctic region. Countries like Russia and Norway have already accelerated the exploration of hydrocarbons in the region.
  • It is these new developments that are likely to lead to new geopolitical scenario. The Arctic Council has now been transformed into an active organization where the future of Arctic may be decided.
  • For some time now, the Arctic Council has been playing an important role in the governance and resource use in the Arctic.

Implications for India

In India, the awareness about the geo-strategic importance of the Arctic region in the wake of meltdown of the arctic ice has been growing. India even has a scientific research station at Svalbard since 2008.

  • Although India may be far from the Arctic region physically, yet the impact of melting of the Arctic ice on the global climate is likely to be significant. India also understands the geo-strategic importance of the Arctic region.
  • It is in this context that the observer status granted to India gains significance. As an observer, India will not have any say in the decision-making process. However, this inclusion is significant in view of the fact that the Arctic Council now factors in even geo-economic elements.
  • Further, China’s ability to navigate the Northern Sea Route (NSR) is another factor in India’s military strategy. It opens up the possibility of China accessing oil from the north. India’s military strategy, so far based on the assumption that it would be able to pressurize China by blocking off Malacca Strait, thus choking the Chinese energy supplies needs to be reframed in the context of energy availability from the Arctic region.

Still further, it can also mean a shift in the center of gravity back to trans-Atlantic from the Asia Pacific, via the Arctic region. India’s admission to the Arctic Council as an observer assumes significance in light of these implications.

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