Silhouettes of the Arctic
Theres Thomas – Student, Kautilya
The Arctic historically has been seen as a no-man’s region with time and efforts spent by countries to understand the unexplored zone. For ages, the harsh weather of the Arctic has stopped countries from making big progress, denying them access to an abundance of undiscovered natural resources and potential new transportation routes. The countries that form part of this region are- The USA (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Russia, and Canada, which comprise the Arctic Council. The Council was formed in 1996 after the Ottawa Declaration. Out of these eight countries- The U.S., Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Canada have direct access and legal rights over the Arctic Ocean. Despite its harsh and frozen nature, the Arctic is an environmentally sensitive zone, but that does not stop it from being a drama-free zone. The council has a provision to give ‘observer statuses to a non-Arctic State to be a part of the council. This makes sure that notions and ideas that the Arctic is a common heritage of mankind are negated. At present there is 1.6 times more presence of non-arctic states in the Council; this comes to show the increasing strategic interest of the world in this region. These dynamics are important to note because the Arctic is home to the world’s 30% undiscovered natural gases and 13% undiscovered oil resources. Hence, there is an urge and a rush among the Member States to lay claim to areas that are beyond the 200 nautical miles (nm) EEZ and the 350 nm extended continental shelf.
With the glacier breaking away and the ice cap melting, movement in the Arctic has become more accessible. Global warming is speeding up this process. Once that happens, two geopolitical events will take place. The first will be a new recoverable source of oil and gas. The second will be new and shorter strategic sea routes that will change the pattern of energy flows on sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) with new security implications. If the Arctic melts pertain Russia will acquire most of the continental shelf area and rights to the Exclusive Economic Zone. This will make Russia what it has been calling itself the ‘Polar Great Power’. Either or a combination of the following possibilities can play out in the near future for Russia.
- The demand for non-renewable sources of energy goes down due to climate activism, reducing the dependency of the world on Russia.
- Countries will fail to promote low-carbon energy alternatives, resulting in increased Arctic melting and increased demand for gas.
Russia has militarized its’ coast to maintain control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR) which will benefit exporting countries by reducing the freight time of shipping by 13 days, for which it hopes to gain support from other Asian and South Asian countries. In exchange, Russia gains control of the region’s geopolitics, including the ability to impose sanctions on neighbouring countries. China with its deep pockets has been heavily investing to develop NSR and Russia’s LNG projects, in an attempt to showcase NSR as a part of its own Polar Silk Route. Russia’s dominance in seeking to open the NSF all year will have serious ecological consequences. Heavy infrastructure development, such as breaking up ice sheets using nuclear-powered icebreaking ships, is accelerating climate change and rising global temperatures. Increased shipping traffic will result in the release of black carbon/soot from ship engines, contributing to Arctic warming and biodiversity loss.
- Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Resources – Today in Energy – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).” U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
- CONTINENTAL SHELF CLAIMS in the Arctic
What is the US doing about it? The U.S. has strong opinions on the NSR. It deals with the Arctic through the lens of environmental conservation and wants limited development in the region. If Canada and the U.S. come to a common understanding, then the North-western Passage can be offered as an alternative solution to NSR. It is the sea route that connects the Atlantic and the Pacific through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The NATO alliance will play a key role in securing the Arctic Region and challenging Russian hegemony; however, this will again lead to heavy investments and militarization of the Arctic.
With little to no say in the Arctic’s geopolitics directly, India released its Arctic Policy in 2022. India’s Arctic Policy provides a good framework for the expansion of India-Nordic cooperation in the Arctic region. This is essential for India because apart from coal, India imports most of its energy requirements. India needs to diversify its energy flows and additionally needs to push back China’s undivided presence on the Arctic shelf. However, it is important to remember that climate change affects the Arctic like no other place on earth and what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Changes in the Arctic have global implications and India’s vulnerabilities to climate change are well known.
This brings up the age-old debate between conservation and development. With dominant players pushing their agendas in the Arctic, nations vulnerable to climate are overlooked, Lot more deliberations and long-term goals need to be considered when it comes to making the first move in the Arctic. Let us wait to see how things get unfolded.
- Conley, Heather A., Matthew Melino, Nikos Tsafos, and Ian Williams. “ARCTIC ECONOMIC DYNAMICS TO 2050.” AMERICA’S ARCTIC MOMENT: Great Power Competition in the Arctic to 2050. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2020.
- ARCTIC COUNCIL