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Icy challenge: Distrust towards Chinese interference in Arctic an opportunity for India

Icy challenge, Chinese interference, Artic, India, artic circle, Norway, Canada, Russia, UK

By Sulagna Chattopadhyay

India, as we know, is not an Arctic nation, or even a 'near-Arctic' one, but China has designated itself to be one. India seems to have little business interest in the resource-rich area, and the proposed sea and land routes that are strategically emerging in the region with the melting of the sea ice, are not exciting enough to elicit a resounding response. Attending the Reykjavik annual Arctic Circle Assembly from October 9-12, the question that recurrently arose was-are we needed in this region, and, if yes, what should be the nature of our business?

The Arctic Circle, established in 2013, is a quasi-government body that works with the Icelandic government to create the largest, unique and open Arctic platform. It is a meeting place for over 2,000 delegates from 60 odd countries. The Assembly does not uphold any specific embodied mandates, but is key in setting the trends and priorities for the increasingly challenging future in all the eight Arctic nations-Russia, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States, plus the countries that border them.

An analysis of the varied interests in the four day Assembly with around 170 small and large parallel sessions and plenaries, reveals that apart from representations from Iceland, the USA followed by Norway, Canada, Russia and the UK had the highest number of attendees. Interestingly, though China's presence was substantive in the sessions, it was the outlook of the other countries towards China that was worth noting. Greenland (Denmark) for instance expressed deep distrust towards China's investment in its aviation sector. Also observable, was the keen interest of multi-nation academia in discussing China's leading role in the establishment of new routes in the region-notably the Polar-Silk route and the Belt and Road Initiative.

Four delegates from India's nodal institute-National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, Goa, working on Polar science presented the nation's scientific stronghold in the Arctic.

India has had a vibrant Arctic scientific programme since 2008. It has been posturing for scientific leadership for many decades now-the commencement of the Antarctic programme, way back in 1982, was a significant step towards this. India's dedicated competence in scientific research, perhaps, helped the nation gain the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting membership, and, thereon, the Arctic Council observer status in 2013. This has been renewed again in 2019. This competence also beckons collaborative international research augmentation and enhanced expertise in global science.

The Reykjavik's Assembly had a mere 10 purely scientific, and about 40 academic sessions, out of a total of 170. The rest ranged from policy and governance to infrastructure, industry and concerns of the indigenous populace.

Notwithstanding India's scientific advancement, posturing for further involvement calls for an active interest from ministerial bodies. Although, India has been partnering with Russia for oil and gas in the high Arctic, the Reykjavik Assembly saw no participation from the sector. The Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum established by the eight Arctic nations that concerns itself with all issues (except military security), interestingly does not prohibit commercial exploitation of resources in the Arctic. It simply mandates sustainability, "without harming the interests of local populations and in conformity with the local environment". The Arctic Circle Assembly meeting at Reykjavik was a reflection of this very pulse.

The Arctic needs a new direction-scientific expertise, investment in oil and gas sector, infrastructure investment, new fishery technologies and skilled human capital are all being urgently sought. Is India capable of helping with expertise, manpower and investment? Maybe, yes. India's various policy bodies and industry federations need to strategise and devise a new and challenging roadmap for interventions in the region. Antarctica, as we know, is not likely to open up for exploration for many years, but the Arctic discourse is different and mandates an aggressive and need-based directive. A noted professor on Arctic Politics, Lassi Heininen, during a plenary, in fact, warned nations-to be more specific, one nation- that claim to be an Arctic stakeholder that the Arctic belonged to its 'right-holders'. With a quiet acceptance of India in the global fora and increasing distrust towards Chinese investments, it is an opportune time for India to show its indelible Arctic leadership to the world.

Author is President, SaGHAA, a New-Delhi based think tank