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Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Lavanya R Zeeshan Ali


The Arctic region is situated above the Arctic Circle that encloses the northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska in the United States. Among these, Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark, and the US(Alaska) are the five countries that have direct access through transportation and complete jurisdiction over the Ocean. The Arctic Council was a direct result of the proceedings following the Ottawa declaration in 1996. The declaration consisted of provisions for multiple stakeholders, including those that gained complete jurisdiction and other non-Arctic states and organizations. The latter of states who wished to participate in and contribute to the council's working was given an “observer status.” The Arctic Council was formed as an intergovernmental forum with the countries mentioned above along with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states and indigenous peoples. A Standing Arctic Council Secretariat at the Fram Centre in Tromso, Norway, was established in 2011.


There are six Working Groups within the Arctic Council, each focusing on a particular set of issues for the Arctic Council. The Working Groups include- Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP), Conservation of Arctic Flora and fauna (CAFF), Emergency Prevention, Preparedness & Response (EPPR), Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) and Arctic Contaminants Action Program (ACAP).In addition, the Arctic Council has more than 35 Observer states and organizations. The permanent participants or the indigenous peoples’ secretariat represents the interests of the Inuit living across the circumpolar region.

All Arctic Council decisions and statements require a consensus of the eight Arctic States. (EPW, 2021) Among the Asian States, five nations hold an observer status: India, China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. These nations were regarded “observers” in the council conditional to recognizing the sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction in the Arctic. The observers do not carry voting rights; however, they can participate in programs and offer their skills and expertise. Apart from this, the induction of observer states was cognizant of 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 Arctic Council mainly works through programs and action plans some of which include- Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Arctic Human Development Report and Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring program.

The Arctic Council functions through regular Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meetings convened every six months. At the end of every two years,, a Ministerial Meeting is held where the work done in the span of the last two years is compiled, and the chair of the council is rotated. The meeting is named after the city host city, and its results are compiled in a non-binding but formal “declaration”. The latest Ministerial Meeting was held in Reykjavik in May 2021, with the current chair as Russia serving till the next Ministerial Meeting in 2023.


Unlike the Antarctic Treaty, 1959, the Northern counterpart does not have any overarching governing treaty. The possibility of an Arctic Treaty has been debated by members and experts alike. In 2009, the EU Parliament passed a resolution on Arctic Governance underlining the concern for the environment, energy, and scrutiny in the Arctic and calling for an international treaty for the protection of the Arctic with the Antarctic Treaty system as its model (Floistad, Lothe, 2010). However, this is problematic since the entire Antarctic shelf is surrounded by oceans but the Arctic has littoral states which all claim their territory. When this is coupled with estimates showing that the Arctic Circle is home to almost 90 billion barrels of oil, which is around 13% of Earth’s reserves, the great game to stake claim over the Arctic intensifies (Bryce, 2019). Another reason why there has been no overarching treaty over the Arctic due to a post-cold war environment, where agreements and mutual consultations are preferred over signing treaties (Ministry of External Affairs, 2013). However, there are separate treaties that focus on specific aspects of the polar regions that apply to the Arctic like the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement (2011), Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic (2013) and Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (2017). The Polar Code that regulates the navigation of the polar regions applies to both the poles.


India’s interest in the Arctic Region has spanned over nine decades with the signing of the Svalbard treaty in 1920, as a British Colony. The treaty recognizes Norway’s sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago now called Spitsbergen. This treaty allows all signatories to enjoy the same rights to all-natural resources’ however, taxations are limited to the governance of Svalbard alone and the region cannot be militarized (Agarwala, 2021). It took its first Arctic expedition in 2007, journeying to the research base of Ny-Alesund in the Svalbard archipelago looking to initiate studies in glaciology, biological sciences and ocean and atmospheric sciences. In the following year, India set up a research station “Himadri” at the International Arctic Research Base at Svalbard, Norway (Seethi, 2021). Since then, India’s interest in the region has been growing. It was granted the status of Observer in the Arctic Council (AC) in 2013, its term has been renewed for another 5 years in 2019. The institutional framework set up by India for the purpose of Antarctic and Arctic studies includes the Goa-based National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the Ministry of external affairs looks after the engagements with the Arctic Council. The Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Ministry of Science & Technology and the Department of Space are also involved in Polar research. India’s connection with the Arctic is significant in terms of the research contribution, it holds a special interest in mapping links between Arctic Sea ice melting and variation in the Indian monsoon system due to the presence of the Himalayas or as India calls it- “the third pole” (Sharma, 2020). India has an extensive coastline of 7,516.6 km, with an estimated 14.2 percent or about 171 million people calling coastal districts their home (Ministry of Environment). Hence its worries on impacts of unpredictable monsoon and rising ocean levels are well established (Pareek, 2020).


In January 2021, India released a draft of the Arctic policy white paper soliciting public comments and suggestions. The Draft of the Indian Arctic policy paper released explained the principles and tried to put India on the map of the larger Arctic Framework. The larger rationales in its draft lay on placing science as a tool to approach the arctic. India considers itself as a country that is affected by Polar Regions. The Indian Arctic Policy (IAP) articulates India’s engagement in five significant areas- science and research, economic and human development cooperation, transportation and connectivity, governance and international cooperation, and national capacity building. India aims to effectively build relations in and around the arctic countries and develop a better understanding of climate change.

The policy conjointly states the necessity to strengthen ‘Himadri’ and establish collaborations with scientific establishments functioning on polar sciences. India’s pursuits in this region are focused on scientific research with a deep understanding of the impacts of various atmospheric gases on flora and fauna, effects of space weather on the arctic ionosphere etc. India’s research on the Artic under Earth Sciences indulges in emphasizing on photochemical production of carbon monoxide and its diurnal variability in the Indian Ocean. However, India’s biggest priority is to study and map the links between Arctic Ice Sea melting and variation in the Indian Monsoon Season. Another huge concern is the acceleration of melting Arctic ice caps, leading to rising sea levels in the Indian Ocean. This leaves the coastal areas exposed to a huge propensity of climate vulnerability A significant segment of the Indian population resides in these coastal cities and with the future depicting coastal flooding, increased rainfall, cyclones, tropical storms etc, India’s arctic research relates to domains of utmost importance and protecting the interests of those in the region.

This document envisions India seeking to play a constructive role in human development in a sustainable fashion and of significant value to arctic communities. India also aims to anchor its scientific bunch of vast expertise to harness in Polar Research. The document also mentions how India seeks to achieve these according to best practices formulated by bodies such as the Arctic Council (India’s Arctic Policy 2021). The draft policy encourages the scope of India to involve a high-level committee of think tanks, scientists, and other experts, building collaborations with institutions in the Arctic, such as the University of the Arctic.

The point of developing Human development in the IAF has been formulated on a very parallel to the socio-economic status quo of the Himalayan society. The document states that “Specialised cultures of the Arctic’s autochthonic inhabitants are being inexorably wedged by global climate change also as economic development and improved connectivity”. On a similar stratum of the predicament faced by the Himalayan people due to the effects of climate change, the IAF takes cognizance. The paper addresses these challenges, such as disrupting traditional knowledge and degenerating ecosystem. Although not a lot has been comprehended as to how India aims to achieve this build-up, the paper outlines these on a very empirical basis.

Transport connectivity around the Arctic is relatively underdeveloped and India seems to explore more on this sector. The white paper draft has substantially laid out the avenue to reach the Arctic through the International North-South Transport Corridor. Integration of several routes such as INSTC with European rail networks such as the North Sea-Baltic TEN-T Core Network Corridor, the Baltic-Adriatic TEN-T Core Network Corridor, or the Scandinavian-Mediterranean TEN-T Core Network Corridor can be beneficial in developing steady transportation reach for India. The policy paper lays down expectations of India regarding ice-free conditions within the Arctic leading to “opening of latest shipping routes and thereby lowering prices and reshaping world trade. In addition, India expects that “the North-South connectivity can end in lowering shipping costs and overall development of the country and autochthonous communities quite East-West connectivity” (India’s Arctic Policy 2021)

The Indian Arctic Policy has regarded the Arctic as “the largest unexplored prospective area for hydrocarbons remaining on earth”. The draft policy has also been cognizant of utilizing India’s expertise for investment in Arctic infrastructure. Besides its vast mineral reserves, The IAP emphasized how India plans to engage in offshore mining, develop ports, airports, and establish data centres for commerce in the region. These policies have also put forward a gateway for many public and private consulting firms to augment investments for Arctic Projects. The notion of the Public-Private Partnership model has been explored. The paper indicates how Indian companies are encouraged to obtain membership to the Arctic Economic Council. (India’s Arctic Policy 2021)

One last section in the IAP addresses how India plans to develop governance and internal cooperation. The Arctic Governance is administered by various national domestic laws, global treaties, bilateral agreements, and customary laws for the indigenous peoples. The pretext of Arctic governance is crucial and has sovereign jurisdictions as well beyond national jurisdictions. These factors are something that will have to be kept in context. While the general focus of capability building is on science and technology, the draft document doesn't appear to possess the adequate house for social sciences and regional strategy within the creating of India’s Arctic policy. However, the extent of coverage of areas of exploration and specialization by the five pillars of the IAP is vast.



Former President of Iceland, Olafur Grimsson stated that “There’s a long queue of other players (aside from permanent members of the Arctic Council)- starting with China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and France and others who want a piece of the action and want to sit at the table. And they are coming with a basket of investment finance” (Savage, 2013). The most significant investments India is making is in response to its growing energy needs. India’s current energy needs are met by imports from West Asia and Africa, the country is dependent on imports for about 82.1% of its crude oil requirement and 44.4% of natural gas, the rest relying on domestic production(Bhagwat, 2020). In light of these figures, a report published by International Energy Agency indicates that India’s oil and gas demand is expected to continue an upward trend, almost doubling by the year 2040 (Bhagwat, 2020). India has been diversifying its energy sources; it has turned towards the Russian Siberia and Arctic to satisfy its burgeoning energy needs.

Russia is India’s largest oil and gas investment destination, with over US $16 billion investments so far in the Russian oil and gas sectors as stated by the Indian oil minister Hardeep Singh Puri (Dmitrieva, 2021). Russia has invested the same in India’s oil sector as well. The ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd.) and its foreign branch OVL (ONGC Videsh Limited) have invested in Russian energy projects which extend into the Russian Far East, Siberia and the Russian Arctic. An MoU was signed between NITI Aayog and the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic in September 2019 (NITI Aayog, 2019). The MoU formed the basis for bilateral cooperation and trade for the years 2020-25; both sides would organize an annual business dialogue to ensure development. They have declared intentions to develop bilateral trade by the US $5 billion per annum to reach the US $30 billion by 2025. (Russia Briefing, 2021).

Indian companies began investing in Arctic energy and mineral resources in Russia. Russian oil companies Rosneft and Vostok oil are targeting extraction in the peninsulas of Yamal and Gydan up north in the Russian mainland. To this extent, India has signed agreements with Rosneft, which already supplies India with Arctic LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas). In return, Russia’s Rosneft has invested around $13 Billion in Vadinar Refinery, Gujarat and has bought a 49% stake in India’s Essar Oil Ltd (Bhagwat, 2020). Coal India and Russian Vostok Coal have undertaken a joint venture that would allow India to mine in the Arctic for coal (Agarwala, 2021). In the transportation sector, India and Russia have signed agreements in 2019 on creating a maritime route from Chennai to Vladivostok to trade oil. Russia has also agreed to provide India access to the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects Europe to the Pacific and Asia, and it goes through the northern shores of Russia. Russia wants to open the route up for commercial trading hoping to compete with the Suez canal for economic benefits.

Arguably Russia is India’s most important Arctic partner. When India’s investments are combined with existing hydrocarbon investments in other parts of Russia like the Sakhalin-1 consortium in the Japanese archipelago and the Vankor field of Siberia with Rosneft, Russia proves to be an invaluable long term ally for India’s energy requirements.


India’s relationship with Nordic countries is historic starting with the establishment of research base Himadri in Norway. Norway is the leading explorer of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) after Russia. Norway also extracts large amounts of oil from its arctic region. In 2017, Norway outranked Qatar to become the second-largest global exporter of gas, next to only Russia- oil and gas drilling in Norway contributes 22% to the nation’s GDP and 67% to its exports (Chattopadhyay, 2019). However, India is more focused on scientific research than Norway. An MoU was signed between the Norwegian Research Council and the Ministry of Earth Sciences in 2014 which approved of 5 joint Indo-Norwegian polar research projects. India and Norway are also interested in promoting the sustainable development of oceans by creating blue economy-based jobs and livelihoods. Norway welcomes any Indian contributions to scientific research in the Arctic.


Although China is not an Arctic littoral state, it is a growing power in the Arctic Council. China enjoys a similar status to India as an observer and its interest in the region has been on an expansionary tangent. Its history of involvement in the Arctic like India started with signing the Spitsbergen treaty, but its Arctic policy has evolved into a multidimensional strategy. China calls itself a “Near Arctic state” and its Arctic White paper released in 2018 highlights great ambition in the Arctic region. A significant aspect that China stated is the creation of the “Polar Silk Road” (figure1); a two-step initiative using the “Central Passage” which connects North America, East Asia and Western Europe passing through the high waters of the ocean and the Arctic Circle. This is distinct from the Northwest Passage claimed by the Canadian archipelago and the Northern Sea Route claimed by Russia. China plans to use these routes to gain a first-mover advantage and compete with Canada and Russia in terms of maritime navigation. Experts state India is directly affected by the polar Silk Road because it might lose its leverage over China in terms of trade routes (Ramanathan, 2019).

Figure 1: China’s Polar Extension to Silk Road

Currently, the Malacca straits link Asia with the Middle East and Europe, carrying about one-fifth of the world’s trade through the Indian Ocean. When the Arctic becomes ice-free due to climate change, the NSR is believed to become more prominent since it reduces the distance between Rotterdam and Shanghai by 23% and shipping costs by 35% (Sharma, 2020). The Polar silk route first focuses on the NSR and eventually shifts its focus to the transpolar route when it becomes viable. The Transpolar route or China’s “Central Passage” directly cuts through the Arctic may save two further 2 days of travel. Moreover, the Arctic is cheaper and does not have security issues like Piracy, unlike the Indian Ocean. India, which stands to gain revenue from ships that pass-through Malacca straights are likely to be economically disadvantaged when the Arctic routes become functional.

Another important aspect of the “Polar Silk Road” is oil investments by China in the Arctic littoral regions. China and Russia have successfully collaborated on LNG projects in the Yamal peninsula and it is the largest LNG project in the world (Silk Road Briefing, 2021). China has signed bilateral energy accords with Iceland, invested in rare earth minerals mining fields in Greenland, and built satellite stations in Sweden and Finland (Adityanjee, 2021). These initiatives threaten India’s influence as an Arctic power and make China the dominant Asian power. China has emerged as a rival when it comes to competing for Arctic resources, as both the Indian and Chinese economies are extremely resource-hungry.


The significance of the Arctic region for India in the near future has been well established. Even though India released a White Paper in January 2021, it was quickly withdrawn for further deliberation. There is a severe lack of documentation with regard to Arctic Policy and the Indian government needs to work on the ambiguity it has shown in terms of framing a concrete policy. It is also suggested that a separate MEA desk can be formed that specializes in Arctic affairs and a permanent Arctic Ambassador be appointed to attend Arctic Council meetings.

India’s relations with Russia is quite strong however when it comes to Scandinavian countries India needs to strengthen its bilateral and multilateral ties. India needs to create better relations with Canada and Denmark, especially because of the northwest passage and its proximity to the north pole. Expansion in terms of research and study can also be taken up- connections can be drawn to the indigenous groups in the third pole, the Himalayas with the indigenous groups of the Arctic. The effects of climate change and diplomacy can be studied, interpolated and applied accordingly. Partnerships with more Foreign Universities is recommended as well.

India has also looked at the Navy as a diplomacy tool in the Arctic region. Although the Arctic Council was not formed to engage in military activity, both Russia and the US have military bases in the Arctic region. Russia owns several nuclear-powered icebreakers as well, while the US is more passive with its approach. Joint exercises, establishing military bases to offer protection for shipping routes and commercializing ice breakers are all well within the purview of the Indian Navy diplomacy in the near future. India should also look into constructing its own Polar Research Vehicles (PRV) which have the most advanced ice-breaking facilities to assist in exploration. The Indian Navy’s capabilities will be increased as well.

India should make more investments in arctic littoral states to counter China's rivalry and dominance. To this extent, it should bring in private companies and propose influence blocs like BRICS and ASEAN to provide funding citing energy requirements and deals. India should also strengthen its partnership with Russia and Canada to ensure it gets access to commercial routes of NSR and Northwestern passage (Figure 2). Moreover, India and China are both power-hungry economies with explosive energy needs, India should favour itself with more energy agreements and diversify its sources.

Figure 2: the Northwestern Passage and the Northern Sea Route


India’s journey with the Arctic has been long and will continue to unfold as nature transforms itself to provide opportunities. Despite being an observer state, India has the capacity to significantly influence the policies of the Arctic States, as a growing economy, it has immense amounts of investments to offer. India’s contribution to scientific research has been instrumental for studies in climate change, monsoon patterns, ocean ecology and sustainable development. However, scholars still contend that over the next decade India’s approach to the Arctic is likely to be largely minimalist by default (Ramanathan, 2019). This is especially applicable in terms of the military because of several reasons. The Arctic region is relatively stable as mutual agreements govern it, it does not face the immediate threat of militarization. Secondly, more importantly, India is busy and preoccupied with threats from its neighbours because of border and territory issues. For Indian diplomats, the Arctic is significant but it does not take precedence over other issues in the current scenario. As the relevance of climate change grows stronger in contemporary times, so does the North Pole. India must stay current and updated with its Arctic Policy to cope with a changing world, possibly creating a new world order in the decades to come.


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