Contours of India’s Arctic Policy

K M Seethi ( is the director of Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.
13 May 2021

The Arctic region has recently assumed considerable strategic significance as it has been underlined by the policies enunciated by major powers. The interests and concerns of the Arctic states are vast and varied. India, being an observer in the Arctic Council, has legitimate interests in the region and has, of late, come out with its own Arctic policy. India’s Arctic policy notified as a draft document in early January 2021 has come as a shot in the arm for the country’s science diplomacy. The policy claims to concur with India’s fast expanding scientific-technological power status. However, it has been drafted in a strategic milieu of countries like China having invested with great ambition in the region. Though India has stepped up with its sustainable engagement diplomacy in the Arctic, the question remains whether the draft policy adequately addresses the emerging power equations in the region. The article examines this challenging scenario in the Arctic region and explores the potentials and constraints of India’s Arctic policy.  

India’s Arctic Policy (IAP), notified as a draft document in early January 2021, has come as a shot in the arm for the country’s science diplomacy. The draft policy is also in line with India’s fast-expanding scientific-technological (SciTech power) status which has both national and international dimensions. As per the global ranking, India currently occupies the third position in scientific and technical person power in the world. Its research and development (R&D) expenditure and science and technology (S&T) publications also rose significantly. With the surge in S&T publications, India is globally at the third position (MOST 2020).

IAP has been drafted in a strategic milieu of big powers (like China) having invested with great ambition in the Arctic region. China’s “Polar Silk Road”  is essentially a part of its robust “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) which seeks to reinforce its geopolitical and geoeconomic posture in the region. India has stepped in at the right time with its “sustainable engagement” diplomacy and “SciTech” power in the Arctic.  

Geospatially, the Arctic is located above the Arctic Circle, which encompasses the Arctic Ocean basin (roughly 6.1 million square miles) and the northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and the United States (US) state of Alaska. Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and Alaska have direct access to as well as jurisdiction over the Arctic Ocean. 
The Arctic Council was formed as an intergovernmental forum with these countries along with Finland, Sweden and Iceland, following the Ottawa Declaration in 1996. The declaration has provisions [3(a), (b) and (c)] for non-Arctic states and organisations to participate in and contribute to the working of the council with an “observer status.” The council is envisaged as a forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic states, Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues such as environmental protection and sustainable development in the region (Arctic Council 1996). 

There are five states from Asia holding “observer status” in the Arctic council (India, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore) and all joined in 2013. India renewed its membership in 2019 for another five-year period. The admission of “observers” in the council was made conditional upon recognising the “Arctic states’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic” besides recognising the broad international legal framework that has a bearing on the Arctic Ocean, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

The US had insisted at some point that the council “should not deal with matters related to military security” and this was added as an addendum upon signing the Ottawa Declaration. Curiously, after 20 years, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a statement in 2019 said that since the situation in the Arctic region had changed, that is, having become a terrain of “power and competition,” the eight Arctic states should “adapt to this new future” (New York Times 2019). Obviously, the reference to power and competition was aimed at the expanding role and activities of China to which the Trump administration had serious reservations.1 However, geostrategic concerns continued to generate anxieties among the Arctic states and, consequently, countries like Russia, Canada and Norway have had to bolster defence infrastructure in the region. 

India and the Arctic Region

India’s Arctic contacts began a century ago with its signing of the “Svalbard Treaty” in February 1920 in Paris.2 A breakthrough in India’s Polar research came in 1981 when the country joined the nations engaged in Antarctic exploration.  However, its engagements did not make much headway till 2007 when the scientists undertook India’s first Arctic expedition with a view to initiating studies in glaciology, biological sciences, ocean and atmospheric sciences. In the following year, India set up a research station, Himadri, at the international Arctic research base at Svalbard, Norway. 

In another six years’ time, scientists from the ESSO‒National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) and the ESSO‒National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) set up another facility at Kongsfjorden (which is part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean). The facility is India’s first multi-sensor moored observatory called “IndArc” which is to undertake studies and collect real-time data on the Arctic climate and its impact on the monsoon. The successful deployment of this facility is seen as a model of Indo-Norwegian scientific and technical cooperation in addressing global climate change.

Another atmospheric laboratory was established in 2016 at Gruvebadet in Ny-Alesund with the aim of initiating studies on clouds, precipitation, long-range pollutants, and other background atmospheric parameters. The Arctic research has helped to initiate studies on glaciers in the Himalayan region. The importance of such comparative studies is underlined by the Annual Report 2018–19 of the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), which acts as the nodal agency for India’s Polar research programme, that also includes Arctic studies. According to the report, “the glaciers are melting world over and those in Arctic and Himalaya are no exception. The Svalbard glaciers and ice caps cover an area of 34,600 km2 while Himalayas occupy nearly 38,000 km2 area. Observation revealed that for the last one and half decades, the process of glacier retreat has been significantly enhanced in both the regions” (NCPOR 2019). 

Needless to say, this has tremendous implications for the agroclimatic conditions of countries like India whose food security itself is dependent on ecosystem stability. The draft IAP itself says that “there are several synergies between polar studies and the study of the Himalayas. Arctic research will help India’s scientific community to study melting rates of the third pole–the Himalayan glaciers, which are endowed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world outside the geographic poles” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021). 

The institutions involved in Polar studies are not many in India. The Goa-based NCPOR, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, focuses on Polar studies and research. While the Ministry of External Affairs looks after the engagements with the Arctic Council, other ministries such as the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Ministry of Science and Technology and the Department of Space are involved in Polar research.  In fact, India’s interest in Polar studies began in 1981 with the first scientific expedition to Antarctica. Since then, several projects have been underway in the areas of the Arctic, Antarctic, Southern Ocean and the Himalayas. 

According to the note attached to IAP, “India seeks to play a constructive role in the Arctic by leveraging its vast scientific pool and expertise in Himalayan and Polar research. India would also like to contribute in ensuring that as the Arctic becomes more accessible, the harnessing of its resources is done sustainably and in consonance with best practices formulated by bodies such as the Arctic Council” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).  

The IAP is enunciated with five major areas of engagement which are science and research, economic and human development cooperation, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building. It is clear that the IAP, apart from underlining the significance of science and research, sees the Arctic region as a potential area of engagement in diverse areas of human development and commercial activities. The document says “India seeks to engage in economic development in a manner that is sustainable and is of value to the Arctic residents, especially indigenous communities. The Arctic offers viable opportunities in different sectors where Indian enterprises can be involved, become part of international commerce, promote traditional indigenous knowledge, businesses and best practices” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

IAP sees the Arctic as “the largest unexplored prospective area for hydrocarbons remaining on earth” besides its vast reserves of mineral deposits. It also keeps in perspective India's investment in Russia which amounts to $15 billion in oil and gas projects.3 Hence India seeks to explore “similar opportunities in other Arctic nations as well” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

The draft policy document is also confident of utilising India’s expertise in the digital economy for facilitating establishment of data centres for commerce in the region. It further explores “opportunities for investment in Arctic infrastructure in areas such as offshore exploration/mining, ports, railways and airports.” This inevitably calls for encouraging participation by Indian public and private sector firms with an expertise in these sectors. India’s chambers of industry and commerce will be encouraged to enhance private investment in the Arctic and explore the public–private partnership model. The draft policy also indicated that Indian companies will be encouraged to obtain membership to the Arctic Economic Council (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

Another area where India has leverage in the Arctic region is human development. The document says “Specialised cultures of the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants are being inexorably impacted by climate change as well as economic development and improved connectivity. This is similar to the socio-ecological-economic predicament of the Himalayan peoples. The disruption of unique ecosystems and erosion of traditional knowledge are common to both. India has substantial expertise in addressing such issues and is uniquely placed to make a positive contribution in assisting the Arctic’s indigenous communities cope with similar challenges” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

In the realm of transportation and connectivity, India has vital stakes. According to IAP, “India ranks third in the list of seafarer supplying nations catering to almost 10% of global demand. India’s maritime human resources could contribute towards meeting the growing requirements of the Arctic” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

India expects that ice free conditions in the Arctic would soon result in the “opening of new shipping routes and thereby lowering costs and reshaping global trade. Traffic, especially through the Northern sea route, is rising exponentially and is projected to quadruple by 2025.” The draft policy also seeks to “explore the possibility of linking the International North-South Transport Corridor with the Unified Deep-Water System and its further extension to the Arctic." India expects that “the North-South connectivity will result in lowering shipping costs and overall development of the hinterland and of indigenous communities more than East-West connectivity” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021).

India is well aware of the fact that the Arctic governance is very crucial in the geopolitical milieu and the region itself is “governed by numerous national domestic laws, bilateral agreements, global treaties and conventions and customary laws for the indigenous peoples.” Hence, the Arctic states’ “respective sovereign jurisdictions as well as areas beyond national jurisdiction” need to be reckoned within the framework of international and national regulations. 

While the overall focus of capacity building is on science and technology, the draft document does not seem to have given adequate space for social sciences, including the strategic component in the making of India’s Arctic policy, even though the four sections of the five pillars IAP outlines deal with these diverse areas. 

China and Arctic Policy

India notified IAP at a crucial time of global and regional power realignments, even in the midst of the pandemic. It was in 2018 that China declared itself a “near Arctic state” and brought out a white paper in this regard. Though China does not have territorial sovereignty and related sovereign rights in the Arctic, it has been so eager to establish a foothold in the region with its self-assumed identity as “near Arctic state.”  

The strategic significance of China’s Arctic Policy (People’s Republic of China 2018) outlined through its white paper cannot be glossed over. It underscores that the Arctic is a region having “global implications and international impacts.” Referring to the Arctic situation, the white paper says that the geopolitical scenario "goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole, as well as on the survival, the development, and the shared future for mankind” (People’s Republic of China 2018). 

China has also gone to the extent of conceding, perhaps for the first time, that its interests in the Arctic region cannot be limited to scientific research but would move to an array of commercial activities. This obviously becomes a part of its project to build a “Polar silk road” that links China with Europe through the Arctic and fits in with the new “blue ocean passages” extending from Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR), put in place in 2013 (Wenwen 2014). 

A document by the European Parliament Think Tank (EPTT) says that “China's Arctic policy suggests a strong desire to push for the internationalisation of the Arctic's regional governance system. The white paper is not a strategy document, and is more interesting for what it omits, such as the national security dimension that is a major driver of China's Arctic ambitions” (Grieger 2018). 
By calling itself as a “responsible major country,” China, however, tries to dispel concerns of the Arctic or non-Arctic states about the extent of its geopolitical ambitions in the region, by emphasising Beijing’s “commitment to international law and cooperation and balancing economic interests with environmental protection” as EPTT pointed out (Grieger 2018). 

Though there were frequent references to UNCLOS in the white paper, experts contest China’s sincerity and credentials. In 2016, for example, as EPTT document says, “China bluntly disregarded the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling on China's maritime claims in the South China Sea versus the Philippines' claims, and on the environmental damage China's large-scale artificial island-building on several maritime features entailed” (Grieger 2018). 

China became more assertive in its maritime policy during the last decade, but the scholars and experts were already absorbed in reimagining the Chinese power in the global strategic landscape. For example, Li Zhenfu, who teaches at the Dalian Maritime University, and is one of the most ardent Chinese commentators on Arctic issues, wrote a decade back that “whoever controls the Arctic sea route will control the world economy and a new internationally strategic corridor.” Li said that China must “play an active, pre-emptive, and vigilant role in Arctic affairs” (Lasserre et al 2017; Wright 2011). 

In 2010 a Chinese admiral Yin Zhuo said that the Arctic “belongs to all the people around the world, as no nation has sovereignty over it… China must plan an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as we have one-fifth of the world’s population.” However, such statements cannot be dismissed as merely academic or far-fetched opinions given the new tempo of Chinese maritime strategies under Xi Jinping (Lasserre et al 2017; Wright 2011). 

In Conclusion

No doubt, the Arctic is rich in resources (with as much as 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas reserves). However, the Arctic has become so sensitive these years and the region is warming far more rapidly than anywhere else on the planet. Scientists say that temperatures mounted almost 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (or 1 degree Celsius) in the past decade alone. It certainly calls for extreme vigilance when powers like China and Russia think about transforming the Arctic into a terrain for big business and rapid economic development. 

Plausibly, India’s draft Arctic policy is embedded in its basic approach which underlines the significance of sustainable engagement through its SciTech power. IAP is also cognisant of the “vulnerability of the Arctic to unprecedented changes in the climate” (Ghosh and Aggarwal 2021b).4 Hence, its emphasis on “rule-based” governance architecture in the region fits in with India’s long-standing policy.  

The author wishes to thank the expert who read this paper and made suggestions for its improvement.

K M Seethi ( is the director of Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.
13 May 2021