The area above the 66° 33' 39" N latitude / Arctic Circle is referred to as the Arctic. It is the northernmost part of Earth and it consists of the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska, Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. The region is unique in terms of its ecosystem. The land here has seasonally varying snow and ice cover, with predominantly treeless permafrost-containing tundra.
The harsh weather, rough terrain and perpetual frozen state of Arctic were the major hurdles when it came to the exploration and claiming parts of the region. However, the snow is receding quickly in the region and the past few years have witnessed record low ice cover during the summers. This phenomenon is proving to be advantageous for the people, who are willing to invest in the regions for resource exploration and get a strategic advantage.
The Arctic is becoming a highly contested region due to its strategic location and deposits of huge amounts of hydrocarbons and precious metals. The Arctic states, as well as other major non-arctic global powers, are looking at this region as the future playground, which in many ways will determine the fate of the world. The ice-capped Arctic is facing the disastrous effects of climate change at almost twice the rate at which the rest of the earth is facing. It has resulted in rapid melting of ice, which has contributed significantly to the sea level rise, which in turn has jeopardized the lives of millions of people living in close proximity to the sea.
There are opportunities and challenges for the multi-polar world order in realizing the conflict-free Arctic dream. Some countries are trying to benefit from the changing dynamics of the Arctic. The melting ice gives access to huge reserves of hydrocarbons and opens up a couple of major trade routes, which will cut short the distance between Asia and Europe significantly. On one hand, the opportunities for new resources and trade routes are up for grab but on the other hand, the challenges are the huge costs involved in the exploration and production of the hydrocarbons amidst the harsh climate. Another challenge is the competing claims over the Arctic Ocean by the Arctic states, which generally overlaps each other. Legal settlements to these issues could be achievable under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These claims prove to be a hurdle in the way of a successful Arctic Diplomacy.
Resources in the Arctic
Estimation made by the United States Geological Survey claims that 30% of the world's natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil could be located beneath the Arctic (Cowling, 2011). Undiscovered petroleum in the vast Russian Arctic is around 66 Billion Tons of Oil Equivalents (BTOE) according to the USGS and 142 BTOE according to the Russian Academy of Science. The vast energy resources of Russia and Norway account for 52% and 12% of the Arctic’s total supply respectively. Norway has been extracting petroleum from the North Sea since the 1970s and is expecting new discoveries in the Barents Sea. As far as oil exploration and production is concerned, the impact would be positive, except from the environmental point of view. The activity is regulated to a far extend than that can induce conflict.
Most of the countries in the higher latitudes already play a lead role in the Oil & Gas industry. Having the right technology and expertise to dig in when the opportunity arises, those countries will eventually benefit.
The countries that in history proved to be most enthusiastic about Oil exploration in the Arctic were USA, Norway, Russia, Canada, and Denmark (through Greenland).
According to Russia Today’s report on 2nd August 2007 (Russia Today, 2007), an Arctic expedition led by a team of Russian scientists planted a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed. This incident was intriguing enough to research more about the region. The flag made out of titanium alloy placed on the seabed of the earth’s geographical North Pole was not only a scientific feat but also a political feat. It was a bold statement coming from the Kremlin that Russia is serious about its claims in the high north. This marks the beginning of a new race for the Arctic as Russia showed the world especially the Arctic States that they are now ready to do more than just claiming.
The Russian Federation is also claiming a large swath of seabed along the Lomonosov Ridge but confined to its sector of the Arctic along with other countries in the Arctic who are claiming their parts. The Arctic holds large quantities of minerals, like phosphate, bauxite, copper, nickel and iron ore. The Russian mining giant–Norilsk Nickel MMC (Russia’s largest mining company) leads the world’s production of nickel and palladium as a by-product. The company has its own fleet of vessels to ship out the minerals and owns port terminals, which help them to extract minerals from the Arctic and transport them to different parts of the world.
The UK has always been a formidable force since time immemorial. They have been known for reaching out to the far corners of the world to conquer land and colonize them. However, in the 21st century, their strongholds over the majority of global affairs have been wearing off gradually. Their economy is suffering as well as they have also opted to exit the European Union. Amidst all these, they are one country who in the recent times have shown major interest in the circumpolar north. They have decided to send 800 troops to the Arctic region and they will continue to do this every year for the next decade (Woody, 2018).
The move is to mark their presence in the region and show their strength as a major country in terms of global influence, especially in the Arctic region. This is a clear act of Arctic’s militarization. The countries involved are mostly denying the fact but it seems that the militarization process is going on in full swing. It should be kept in mind that the region is gaining importance due to its hydrocarbon deposits and trade routes, which in turn has made the region a prized possession for most of the big powers of the world.
China and India
Asian giants like China and India are permanent observer states of the Arctic Council and they are the ones who have a great interest in the region. The East Asian manufacturing giants – China, Japan and South Korea are some of the largest exporters of goods to Europe and North America. The shorter route through the Arctic region will help them to cut on cost. (Gao, 2018)
Recent research suggests that there is a direct link between the Arctic climate and Indian monsoon. The current pattern of change in the Arctic climate (especially the melting of Ice and higher average temperatures) drastically weakens the Indian monsoon (DNA Correspondent, 2015). It is India’s responsibility to take part in climate change mitigation and Arctic diplomacy since the massive Indian agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoon. This makes the scope of this study is even more important from India’s point of view.
India too is directly affected by the sea level rise due to its massive coastline. Thus, the need arises for active participation in Arctic diplomacy. The Indian government estimates that nearly 40 million people (mostly living along the coasts) will be at risk from the rising sea-level by the mid of this century (PTI, 2017).
Energy security is another sector where India needs to plan ahead of time as it is of immense importance for an economy of the size of India and a billion plus population. It is necessary for India to engage itself in the Arctic region if it wants to have an upper hand at energy security. West Asia is in a perpetual state of unrest and with the introduction of unconventional sources of hydrocarbons, India is looking towards its longstanding ally Russia for energy security. Russia has a third of the world’s total natural gas reserves and about 10-13% of the world’s oil reserves. Most of these reserves are in the Russian Arctic and scientists are exploring more reserves in the Arctic Ocean (a large part of which Russia claims to be its territorial waters) (Chaturvedi, 2014).
India is taking a benign approach towards the current developments in the region as it wants to place itself in a better position than China by creating goodwill of itself. While China is taking an aggressive approach economically to reap the benefits out of the new trade routes, India is looking forward to building on its good relations with the Scandinavian countries and Russia for a sustainable use of the Arctic’s resources. After 10 years of ratification of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea Norway, Russia, Canada and Denmark launched projects to establish claims that certain sectors of the Arctic seabed should belong to them.
Devising a Polar Code
A Polar Code can be devised according to scholars, which will help keep the Arctic from exploitation to point that it becomes uninhabitable for both humans and animals. In the past, there have been instances where the world as a single community came forward to agree on certain terms to safeguard some of their precious resources (The Antarctic Treaty). The Arctic is one of the last untouched regions of the Earth and its natural habitat can still be saved if proper measures are taken at the right time. The protection of the Arctic ecosystem is crucial for the planet’s survival. Contrary to the economic benefits that the phenomenon of climate change is presenting to a handful of nations interested in the region, there are signs of severe environmental damage due to increased human activities in the region.
It can be concluded that there are numerous opportunities as well as challenges for various stakeholders in the Arctic. The emerging world order is characterised by its multi-polar nature and in this multi-polar world, Arctic plays a crucial role from numerous point of views. It is the common responsibility of all the nations across the globe to treat Arctic as a Global Commons for a safer and sustainable future.
Chaturvedi, S. (2014). India’s Arctic Engagement: Challenges and Opportunities. Asia Policy.
Cowling, J. (2011). Arctic oil exploration: Potential riches and problems. BBC News.
DNA Correspondent. (2015, January 9). Changes in Arctic ice affect Indian Monsoon: Scientists. Daily News and Analysis (DNA).
Gao, C. (2018, January 26). China Issues Its Arctic Policy. The Diplomat.
PTI. (2017, July 25). 40 million people will at risk from rising sea-level by 2050: govt. The Hindu.
Russia Today. (2007, August 2). Russian flag planted on N Pole seabed. Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/news/russian-flag-planted-on-n-pole-seabed/
Woody, C. (2018, October 1). Military & Defence. Retrieved from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.in/The-UK-will-send-800-troops-to-the-Arctic-to-demonstrate-were-there-to-the-Russians/articleshow/66031350.cms