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India and Asian Observers: Need for Coordination in the Arctic Council

Capt Anurag Bisen is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
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  • April 13, 2023


    The affairs of the Arctic Council (AC) are expected to remain in limbo for the foreseeable future, at least till the resolution of the Russia–Ukraine conflict. India is one of the five Asian Observer States to the AC. India has extremely good and productive relations with all the Arctic countries. In concert with the other Asian Observers, India could use the current state of flux to seek a more inclusive and equitable AC.

    On 11 May 2023, the Arctic Council (AC) Presidency is set to change. Norway is scheduled to take over the reins of the eight-country grouping, the premier inter-governmental forum that manages cooperation in the Arctic region. Two years ago, amidst much fanfare and promise, on 20 May 2021, Russia had taken the helm of the AC in the 25th year of its formation, from Iceland, at the first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic. With the motto of ‘Responsible Governance for Sustainable Arctic’1 and announcing its intentions to keep up the ‘spirit of cooperation’ and to strengthen constructive interaction, Russia had signalled its commitment to close and constructive engagement with all Member States, Permanent Participants, Observers and other Arctic stakeholders. 

    The eight foreign ministers signed the Reykjavik Declaration, to maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation, and flagged the importance of addressing climate change in the Arctic. The Ministers also adopted AC’s first ever Strategic Plan, intended to guide the Council’s work up to 2030 and reflecting the shared values, goals and joint aspirations of the Arctic States and Indigenous Permanent Participants. The first Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) plenary meeting was held a few months later, on 2 December 2021, where Russia hosted around 180 delegates from the Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participant organisations, as well as the AC’s six Working Groups (WGs) and over 30 Observers. Issues relating to indigenous and regional cooperation were discussed and a review of ongoing Arctic Council projects was done.

    Unravelling of Arctic Cooperation

    Less than a year into Russia’s presidency, the fig leaf of Arctic cooperation came apart when on 3 March 2022, seven2 (A7) AC members announced a historic suspension of participation in all activities of the Council, protesting against Russia's “special military operation” in Ukraine. The Nordic Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation (BEAC) and the US, followed in quick succession, suspending all cooperation with Russia in research, science and innovation. Finland and Sweden, both AC members, soon submitted applications for NATO membership and the former became the 31st member of the Alliance on 4 April 2023.

    Even though the A7 issued a Joint Statement on 8 June 2022, on the limited resumption of AC cooperation activities, ‘on projects that do not involve the participation of Russia’3 the AC has remained in suspension. No new projects or initiatives have been announced and there is a complete lack of engagement between Russia and the West in the Arctic, barring adherence to treaty-based commitments such as the ban on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean4 and aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic5 and some limited cooperation between the US Coast Guard and the Russian Border Guard on maritime safety on either side of the Bering Strait.6 The suspension of engagement has negatively impacted the global climate change mitigation efforts as well and is leading to an ‘environmental emergency’.7

    The curbs have led to cutting off data on permafrost research from Russia, a key source of information for climate models that help researchers to predict future warming.8 As the Arctic, a bellwether for the global climate change, is warming four times faster than other parts of Earth,9 the suspension is likely to have disastrous consequences worldwide.10

    Observers at the Arctic Council

    India is one of the five Asian and 13 Observer states to the AC, having obtained the membership in 2013, which was subsequently reaffirmed in 2019. As an unintended consequence of the deadlock in the region, the Arctic research of these five Observers—India, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore—also stands affected. This is also, partly, because of inequitable provisions in the AC rules for the Observer States. These rules exclude the Observers from the decision-making processes of the AC, limit their engagement in the AC primarily to the level of WGs, and restrict their financial contribution. The proposal of research projects by Observers, for instance, is only through an Arctic State or a Permanent Participant.11 They also require the Observers’ adherence to the Ottawa Declaration and the Rules of Procedure, before joining the AC and continued adherence during the tenure of their Observer ship.

    Since the decision-making of the AC is by consensus, technically, the tenure of an Observer can be cut short even if one of the AC member so desires. Therefore, even though the climate change in the Arctic may be impacting an Observer state differently than a member state, the latter cannot conduct independent research through the aegis of the AC or its WGs. For this, a country would have to be either a signatory to the Svalbard Treaty or undertake research bilaterally, in collaboration with any of the Arctic State. The provisions of the AC also do not permit the Observers to undertake research directly amongst themselves. It must be noted, however, that the international law, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), provides for unimpeded marine scientific research in waters beyond the extended continental shelf (ECS) and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a coastal state.

    Arctic Council: Broken Forever?

    Be that as it may, the affairs of the AC are expected to remain in limbo for the foreseeable future, at least till the resolution of the Russia–Ukraine conflict. Even if the conflict was to cease, it is assessed that the spirit of cooperation that permeated the region, even during the height of Cold War, could be a thing of the past, never to return. The deficit of trust is unlikely to be bridged and it is unlikely to be business as usual in the AC, during Norway’s Chair ship and beyond. Therefore, if the consensus in the AC is no longer possible, especially with the entire A7 becoming NATO members, pitted against Russia, what then is likely to become of the Arctic Council?   

    The prospects appear bleak on all counts. Recently, on 28 March 2023, Norway, while announcing its priorities for its forthcoming AC Chair ship, stated that the ‘work in the Arctic Council moving forward will reflect the current political reality’.12 However, it is assessed that the process of transition from Russia to Norway would be a smooth affair, even if the AC and its WGs would continue to remain in a state of suspended animation.

    The US also deems cooperation with Russia in the Arctic virtually impossible for the foreseeable future, and is instead focusing on greater cooperation with its allies and other like-minded Arctic states on security, research, natural resource development and the environment.13

    Russia, on its part, also does not foresee multilateral cooperation returning to the Arctic anytime soon. Instead, it plans to tread a path based solely on its own interests. On 21 February 2023, Russia amended its Arctic policy up to 2035, released earlier in March 2020.14 The new version removed mentions of Russia’s cooperation with the AC and instead focused on Russian national interests in the region.15 It also removed the sub-paragraph ‘a’ of paragraph 16 of its earlier Policy mentioning the ‘strengthening of good neighbourly relations with the Arctic states’ and replaced it with ‘development of relations with foreign states on a bilateral basis … taking into account its national interests in the Arctic’.16 The new version also removed the references to ‘the framework of multilateral regional cooperation formats, including the coastal Arctic “five” and the Council of the Barents Euro-Arctic Region’.17

    Possible Re-alignments

    Given the flux in the Arctic affairs, a plausible scenario in the immediate term is the division of the Arctic region right down the middle, the A7 on one side and Russia on the other. While the West aligns together in the Arctic, binding the seven members of the erstwhile AC in a military alliance (NATO), Russia is most likely to gravitate towards China, in an effort to balance the equation. There have already been some indications towards this. During the recent visit of the Chinese President to Russia, on 21 March 2023, the Russian President, inter alia, mentioned about the promising potential of cooperation with China in developing Northern Sea Route (NSR) and indicated readiness to create a joint working body for its development18 .

    Apart from the NSR, the two countries also announced their intentions to actively develop international transport and logistics corridors by using the potential of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur railways, and multi-lane trans-Asian highways, by jointly guaranteeing their stable operation, and increasing the efficiency of cargo and passenger transportation.19

    The Russian PM, in his talks with the Chinese President, specifically highlighted the successful implementation of the Yamal LNG and the Arctic LNG 2 projects.20 The growing ties between Russia and China in the Arctic mirror their enhanced, across the spectrum, warming relationship, undoubtedly aided and spurred by the increased isolation of Russia by the West. The share of the Rouble and Yuan in mutual commercial transactions between the two countries has reached 65 per cent and continues to grow, their bilateral trade growing by 30 per cent in 2022, setting a new record of over US$ 185 billion and aiming to surpass US$ 200 billion in 2023.21

    India and the current upheavals in the Arctic

    The study of the Arctic is critical to Indian scientists, as it influences our Monsoons which directly impact agriculture sector, on which almost 60 per cent of India’s population is dependent. The rising sea levels due to the Arctic ice melt, also threaten India’s 1,300 island territories and maritime features and the welfare of 1.3 billion Indians. The Arctic melt also helps Indian scientists better understand the glacial melt in the Himalayas, the largest source of freshwater outside the poles and home to almost all of India’s perennial rivers, whose deltas sustain almost 70 per cent of India’s population.

    It is for this reason that India is the only developing country, apart from China, to have a permanent research station in the Arctic since 2008 and has undertaken 13 scientific expeditions to the Arctic. The increasingly accessible Arctic also has the potential to address India’s rising energy needs and its deficiencies in the strategic rare earth elements (REE).  Signalling its rising interest and stakes in the Arctic, ‘India’s Arctic Policy–Building a Partnership for Sustainable Development’was released on 17 March 2022.22

    However, more than the science of the Arctic, India will have to become increasingly cognisant of the geopolitical parleys currently underway in the region and will have to be nimble to deftly navigate the high north imbroglio. So far, India has adroitly managed the geo-political and geo-economic ramifications arising out of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, guided solely by its national interests. Although there have been murmurs of criticism, especially among the sections of the often sanctimonious Western media, they have been effectively rebutted by the External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar on several occasions.

    As far as India’s standing is concerned, it has extremely good and productive relations with all the Arctic countries. With the Nordics, India has a summit level engagement mechanism, the second iteration having been held in 2022. With Canada, India has longstanding bilateral relations and it is home to one of the largest communities of Indian origin, with approximately 4 per cent of Canadians being of Indian heritage.

    With the US and Russia, India has the highest level of strategic partnership, annual 2+2 dialogue mechanism, and extensive military and trade relationship. On one hand, with the US, democracy and Indian diaspora binds and drives the association, said to be one of the most consequential relationships of the 21st century. With Russia, meanwhile, India has had a longstanding and time-tested partner, the only country to have used the veto five times in the UNSC, in support of India’s position.

    Along with the two closest partners of India in the Arctic, China, India’s principal adversary, presents another facet to the conundrum. The growing isolation of Russia, Western sanctions and denial of technology, especially in hydrocarbon exploration and extraction, is increasingly driving the bear in the dragon’s embrace.

    Policy Options

    The Arctic, therefore, presents India with a complex set of opportunities as well as challenges. Clearly, there is a need for India to remain engaged in the region, to secure its increasing national interests. Casting its lot with the A7 in the Arctic, at the cost of Russia, or vice versa, would not be a beneficial policy option for India. Further, increasing dependence of Russia on China, for its export revenues, technology deficits and supply chains, will greatly enhance China’s leverage, force Russia into an uncomfortable acquiescing partnership that may result in unwarranted concessions, such as permitting enhanced Chinese military presence in the Arctic.

    It needs to be borne in mind that the Arctic Ocean presents the shortest missile flight trajectory as well as a submarine passage between China and Europe and North America.  Greater Sino-Russian collaboration in the North would also divert US energies to the region, dilute its focus in the Indo-Pacific and allow China greater manoeuvring space in the region. Therefore, the growing bonhomie between Russia and China, especially in the Arctic, if unchecked, would be detrimental not only to India but to the West as well. It must be, therefore, a collective endeavour to prevent such an outcome. The West needs to play the long and waiting game vis-à-vis China, which represents the growing and formidable threat to the rules based order and the Bretton Woods institutions.

    On its part, India’s efforts ought to adopt multiple pathways. Firstly, India, in concert with the other Asian Observers, could use the current state of flux to seek a more inclusive and equitable AC, with a greater say for the Observer States in the decision-making processes and more freedom in pursuance of their research objectives in the Arctic region. For this to happen, the Asian Observers need to come together in an institutionalised mechanism. Presently China, Japan and South Korea have been holding a Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic since 2015.23 The dialogue has not been held after 2019 due to the pandemic, even though there is a desire from all sides towards resumption.24 The talks are oriented primarily towards scientific cooperation. India and Singapore could join the tri-lateral grouping to provide a more coordinated and synergised approach of the Asian Observers in the AC.

    It would also result in a greater Asian perspective on the Arctic and a more balanced AC. India, despite having an adversarial relationship with China in a bilateral format, has, nonetheless, worked constructively in multilateral mechanisms such as the BRICS, SCO, G20, WTO and the Russia–India–China trilateral. The seeking of a reformed AC is also in line with India’s pitch for ‘reformed multilateralism’, that seeks to create a more accountable, inclusive, just, equitable and representative multipolar international system fit for addressing the 21st century challenges.

    Secondly, since India's theme of its presidency of the G20, and its Arctic Policy, both encapsulate the idea that of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’, resonant with the interconnectedness of the Arctic with the rest of the world, expeditious revival of scientific exchanges in the Arctic is a global good that India could strive to deliver, using the Sherpa Track of its G20 presidency. It has been argued by this author that six of the eight AC members and 11 of the 13 Observers are represented in the G20, providing it the necessary legitimacy and credibility to strive for the resumption of the engagement.

    Thirdly, India could fine-tune its own internal mechanisms to impart a greater impetus to its Arctic endeavours. The region, presently handled by four divisions of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) could do with a more singular and cohesive approach, through the appointment of an Arctic coordinator. All the Arctic Council countries and almost all the Observers, including Singapore, have such a designated appointment. A separate paragraph on the Arctic, in joint statements during India’s summits with Arctic Council countries, would also aid greater policy coherence to the region. 

    The year 2023 is the 10th anniversary of India’s Observer ship of the AC. It is an opportune time to take stock and plan for the future. The Arctic should not become hostage to the re-emerging big power rivalry. India has the credentials and increasingly the heft, to play a stabilising role in the region, for delivering greater global good.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.