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Arctic Council and India – Issues

Tauseef & Others

Relevant Issues related to Arctic Council and India

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 (Ottawa Declaration). It has eight original members i.e Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland and six permanent participant organizations and many observers. Originally, the council’s main focus was to address environmental issues and the concerns of the indigenous people in the region. But in recent years, rapid melting of the Arctic ice due to global warming, opening of the shorter Arctic sea route for shipping between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during summer months and the prospects of large-scale hydrocarbons in the Arctic sea has led to “cold rush” and changed the complexion of the region.

Recently few countries were given observer status along with India. Other countries that joined India as Observers were China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands are already Observers.

Criteria for Observer Status:

(i) Recognize the sovereign rights of Arctic states.

(ii) Recognize that the Law of the Sea and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea constitute the legal basis and the legal framework within which the Arctic will be managed.

(iii) Respect indigenous peoples, local cultures and traditions; and

(iv) Be able to contribute to the work of the Arctic Council.

Now, when India got the observer status, there were criticism awaiting and followed too.

Why and what of criticism?

In accepting to abide by these criteria, India has recognized the territorial jurisdiction and sovereign rights of the Arctic littoral states and hence their pre-eminent and even pre-emptive role over the Arctic zone. The acceptance of the Law of the Sea as the governing instrument for the Arctic also implies that the extension of jurisdiction over the continental shelf as well as over maritime passage and the resources of the ocean space will lie with the littoral states. So the voices are against such acceptance and in favor of the concept of “Global Common”.

What is Global Common then?

Global commons is a term typically used to describe international, supranational, and global resource domains in which common-pool resources are found. Global commons include the earth’s shared natural resources, such as the deep oceans, the atmosphere, outer space and the Northern and Southern Polar regions, the Antarctica in particular. Cyberspace may also meet the definition of a global commons.

Many opposed the Arctic council by terming Arctic as GC and when India got Observer status the critics lamented India because of its abiding the criteria of council and defeating the purpose of GC.

Critical Assessment of Arctic Council:

The Arctic has virtually become the inland water space of the five coastal states — Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States. India has, therefore, no more room to argue that the region be treated in the same manner as the Antarctica. In the Antarctica Treaty of 1959, territorial claims have been kept in abeyance in favor of a global commons approach, respecting the pristine nature of the ice covered continent. The trends we see in the Arctic region may well come to pass in the Antarctic as well. The claimant states could reasonably argue that just as the Arctic space is being managed by the sovereign members of the Arctic Council, with well-defined norms and through cooperation among both the littoral and user states, why could this not serve as a template for Antarctica? Like the Arctic, the Antarctic, too, is a treasure house of resources. These are also being unlocked by the steady melting of the continent’s ice cover.

Implications: Indian gain/loss and global gain/loss

The eight Arctic States have moved quickly to strengthen their claims on the Arctic sea region surrounding the North Pole. What should ideally have been a global common like the Antarctic barred from exportation by states is now almost an internal lake of the surrounding Arctic States. As the arctic ice melts, the unseemly rush for the exploitation of the resources of the Arctic region has begun in all earnest.

The accelerated melting of the ice in the Arctic will have implications for global climate as well as politics, economy and transportation. It is no surprise that countries like China, situated faraway, are keenly interested in the Arctic sea as they link it with their prosperity and security.

The Kiruna ministerial declaration brings out issues that are of immediate concern to the Arctic states. The approach adopted by the Arctic Council is to regulate the shipping lanes, hydrocarbons prospecting and the exploitation of marine resources. The Kiruna declaration has set up a number of focused task forces to study the issues. A legally binding agreement on maritime and aeronautical search and rescue has already come into force. More such agreements can be expected in the future. This is where India, which has had a long-term scientific interest in the Arctic Sea going back to the 1920 Svalbard treaty, comes in. India can learn and even contribute to the work of the Arctic Council.

First, India has deep interest in climate change. The Kiruna declaration describes climate change as a “serious threat”. It recognizes that “climate change in the Arctic causes significant changes in water, snow, ice and permafrost conditions, with cascading effects on biodiversity, ecosystems, economic and human living conditions in the Arctic with repercussions around the world”. It recommends deep cuts in CO2 and greenhouse gases’ emissions. The council wishes to be proactive in climate change negotiations. India, as a developing country and firm believer in equity, has a position very different from that of the Arctic states that are all developed states. Will India be able to sensitize these countries of its position? India can and must engage with the Arctic Council states on climate change issues.

The melting of the Arctic ice can have adverse impact on global atmospheric and oceanic circulations. Will it impact the monsoons on which India is so dependent? India also needs to study the impact of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of so many of Indian rivers. The membership of the Arctic council will provide India an opportunity to get plugged into global, cutting edge research on these issues.

Second, India which is home to a wide variety of biodiversity could gain from efforts of the council states to adopt sustainable development measures to protect their fragile Arctic environment and the indigenous people. Although India is located in a very different geography, it faces challenges such as how to preserve biodiversity, contain maritime pollution, and preserve fish stocks. India can share expertise in this regard.

Third, as the Arctic Sea opens, it will escalate new opportunities for shipping and energy prospecting. India cannot remain indifferent as the geopolitical importance of the Arctic sea increases. India will get involved in global governance issues pertaining to the Arctic, and participation in the council will give it a chance to observe the emergence of the Arctic in this regard closely.

Role of an Observer: Is it justified? India’s Role and prospects

On one hand the permanent members hold complete jurisdiction over Arctic and on the other hand giving Observer status to nations. Let us see how impactful the OS is:

Observers do not have a role in decision making and their membership can be suspended if their activity is not in consonance with the principles enshrined in the Arctic Council’s documents. The Arctic Council ministers have adopted a manual of rules of engagement for observer members. It stipulates that “observers are encouraged to continue to make relevant contributions through their engagement primarily at the level of working groups”. This provides India an opportunity to take part in the meetings of various working groups. The Arctic Council has six working groups covering pollution, monitoring and assessment, conservation of fauna and flora, emergency preparedness and response, Arctic marine environment and sustainable development. India, given its scientific expertise in the Arctic, Antarctic, the Himalayas and capabilities in remote sensing, can surely contribute to the work of some of the working groups.

India’s membership of the council will boost its nascent field of Arctic research. Besides official involvement, an opportunity also comes for Indian think tanks, which should develop close co-operation with their Arctic counterparts to understand the evolution of the Arctic sea.


Economic gain vs Ecological catastrophe:

The “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” approach that all these stakeholders are guilty of, merely disguises the fact that the lure of profit has already triumphed over the fear of ecological disaster.

What could be done to restrain this headlong rush into a potential ecological catastrophe of global dimensions?

  1. The U.N. should set up its own Arctic body. It may be on the lines of the Indian Ocean Commission, which may provide the international community the capacity to monitor what is happening in the region.

  2. Draw up strict norms for activities, taking into account the “global commons” character of the Arctic, and put in place a credible and effective compliance mechanism. India could certainly push for such a global regime without violating its role of Observer at the Arctic Council.

  3. It may also be worthwhile for India and other developing states to put the Arctic on the agenda of the multilateral negotiations on Climate Change under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

  4. A separate resolution or decision of the Conference of Parties to the Convention could draw attention to the Arctic as a global commons, its impact on global climate and the need to ensure that the activities undertaken there do not harm the well-being of the vast majority of people around the world.


A view on India, accepting the Observer Status: (Other than discussed above in implications)

Against –Robin Singh and For-Tauseef Ahmad


India should have not gone for observer status. It is myopic decision. We are so far from arctic that any commercial advantage will be marginal, both transportation and oil. So it would have been better to ask for global common status for it and governing institutions similar to Antarctica and then use this issue to get on moral high ground to boost stand in climate change talks. There is barely much carbon space in atmosphere. Unlocking new oil resources would take off the pressure of investing in clean technology. We have more to lose from climate change than to gain from few million tons of oil.


But we should not forget that lone decisions never work in global agenda’s. As a developing nation, India, if gone against it, would have succumbed to stand out, of what now has been at least some voice to be heard in multilateral fora. I mentioned how India could utilize its membership being a member.


The main reason for arctic rush is commercial gain..nothing more.. we cant gain so why rush. Many other developing countries cant rush either. It can be used to unify all of them in climate change whose importance is increasing every year. Use it to expose hypocrisy of developed world


 I agree, it is. But I feel India’s other stake and stakeholders with whom India has bilateral relations like Russia and US, if opposed by India will have dangerous ramification for India. The sagacious way out is not to get segregated here because other developing nations especially China has caught this opportunity with full openness. India’s dissent will land it out of bilateral and multilateral stands. Right now, India is already suffering from non-trustful foreign policy and another segregated approach has no positive deliberations for India.



China has the capacity..more economic heft to do it is doing is also relatively more close and soon it will have its blue water navy to protect its economic interests in far away region.india lacks these capacities. It is true china is moving towards stand of developed countries. We are just legitimizing the exploitation of arctic with our presence with barely any gain. At least we could have used it to strengthen our position in climate change negotiations by staying away. We were recently isolated there in recent years. Such an issue would have been a bargaining chip.


Just because China has capacity and India do not, is it viable to come to conclusion? 
I think it would be parochial on that note to discard any gainful participation and choose fruitless segregation. One has to welcome certain futuristic stands and sustainable situation reaction process. By that, India’s stand is well justified and well placed too. The case in point is of Kyoto Protocol and other critical issues where Developed nations behaved like escape goats in spite of the potent issue to be addressed. India will now have some say, if it find like-minded developing nations to deliberate on climate change negotiations and simultaneously having a watch over riparian states activities in Arctic region, which India would not had, if have opposed.


I do agree that the climate talk and its preservation in contemporary time is of paramount importance but looking into the perspective of India…the keen interest and involvement of its long time friend Russia in the Arctic region is very vital as pointed by #Tauseef .As India is starving for energy and in dire need of energy security…so if Russia can emerge as big player it will surely help India in enhancing its energy security with cheap import from Russia…and India’s recent close ties with Canada also must not be ignored…. (nishant)


I understand the utility of strengthening energy security on the basis of our relationship with russia but it is debatable that when we have been unable to secure oil from siberian oil fields in russia how will we be able to secure substantial amount from arctic. This was an opportunity to move world away from growing dependence on oil with not much costs to us. Lets not forget india is among the most vulnerable countries to climate change as per IPCC report. We have to prioritise our choices before its too late. We cannot afford the long term and larger cost of climate change but there is any barely any short term gain in arctic. Its far away, we dont have technology to drill in such harsh environment, dependent on goodwill of others and losing an opportunity to rally the developing world in our favour.

I believe that if there is any chance of world to be safe from climate change, then countries will need to bury there short term.interests and cooperate. Realistic international politics in this issue is road to doom. Besides arctic littoral countries are going to fight for sovereignty there for long time. So i dont think any commercial opportunities will open any time soon either. Resolving their claims among them is not so easy. Resolving sovereignty few islands is so contentious in east china sea. That is whole arctic.


I agree with ur views but do u think India is smart enough to project such moves? I think not….Lest India is self sufficient in energy security, which is a far dream, India will never raise or align against super powers prowess. In pragmatic sense the idea of OS is justified but theoretically ur views has validity. I beg to differ that diplomacy is run thru cooperation and not a lone business.


 It is not a lone is not against anyone but for climate change and alliance with developing countries which we already need. It is realistic calculation. That region is contentious. We wont gain much. Why not strengthen position on climate change. For long term energy security india needs clean tech..inhouse and in collaboration..we cannot be dependent on only one source of energy either.

Climate change will become issue of national security for many countries including us. If india was getting good deal of oil in say next 10 yrs, it would have been better but that wont be happening. This is profiteering from climate change by making use of pathways opened in arctic. World is watching our actions not words.



when we are talking about clean energy one thing should be pretty much clear that no consensus have been developed b/w developed and developing nation on the transfer of clean technology so that is really a distant dream for all the least developed economies…to receive clean energy.Secondly most of the developed nations are the biggest Industry polluters and henceforth greatly responsible to worst climate change…so even if India takes a stand nothing much is gonna change at the global stage…so India must not loose its chance to secure its energy scenario…

See…I stated in ma article under gain and loss for India already.  That though India will nt gain much but being a mute spectator away from the alliance is much devastating than being in watch dog like situation. Secondly, I also said that India will be monitoring the progress there and simultaneously pursue UN’s advent to have universal jurisdiction under proper legislation along with aligning with like minded nations for the cause of GC.

Right now if India single- highhandedly wuld have gone to become hero of abjuring developed nations, it wud be no less than a suicide in diplomatic sense.


 Indias presence has only legitimised their collective claim to arctic excluding the rest of the world. India does not have power to enforce anything that it does not like happening in arctic. But we managed to get deal at wto only because of support from other developing countries. So on climate change we have leverage to push our cause. I find it highly doubtful if we are going to get any oil from there anytime soon. But we have a climate deal to sign by 2 yrs. We can be seen as colluding with rich countries in rampaging arctic. the only major selling point of being there- large oil tankers heading india.

India lacks enough diplomats or think tanks to do long term strategic thinking..our inability to do so is no excuse. I am not against joining arctic council as observer. But only that benefits are not apparent and costs are. Maybe we dont know all facts or reasons that govt considered. If there is then i dont mind india joining. I just think not joining is also a strong counter argument.


Agree..but i think u r nt clear with OS ….thats why u r again and again concerned of India being benefited with oil and resources. Because OS is only a membership for scientific engagements and endeavors to learn, not to gain. Furthermore, India’s stand is to learn first and then engage others thru UN, which I think u r nt pointing as middle path.

Pragmatically, getting segregated with nly stretching voice that too, to deaf nations is a fool’s idea, so better and smart strategy is to have some potent clout and then hit the bull’s eye

bro,we succeeded in WTO not because of only developing countries’s support,but there were some other reasons and circumstances tht made this possible.I emphasised on this point because some major developing countries like China,Pakistan,Indonesia etc. had taken away their support from India’s stance on some serious issues,including food security.Apart from India’s successful diplomatic handling of issues,the feel of lagging “multilateral trading system” also was in Developed world’s mind and amid the stagnating world trade growth,situations has compelled them to agree on India- led some strong determined developing countries stand.


I understand scientific endeavours and other reasons. But the central reason everyone is there is for commercial is secondary. UN cannot change the current structure anymore. The reason why they had put recognizing claims of littoral countries as main condition for observer status countries was to co-opt them. In no other international or regional institution we see such a condition. The only reason other than energy security which seems feasible is that too many of our strategic partners are part of it. But that is more of good will gesture.not hard nosed interest based action. I can say with certainity that we have no influence in decisively making any change in decision making at arctic. We are just an observer and will remain that. What happens at arctic will soon become an issue at climate change talks and developing countries will raise it. India would not have been alone on this issue. World needs india as much as india needs it. So isolation will not take place.their are other issues to unite. US wont go away just because we didnt join their arctic group.

 I m not merely talking in terms of principles. Its interest based. The only point is if we are getting any concrete benefits or are there any losses. I dont see the benefits. Arctic countries mind wont change..its made up. They want to exploit arctic.india being inside or outside doesnt wont affect them. But i thi k our position in climate change could have been boostes.besides we could have joined it later also. That option was open too. Why hurry. Let climate change talk get over.


 a great amount of discussion is done with the climatic and energy security aspect of the recent debate over Arctic Council and also India’s observer status…now lets see how the exploration of new energy reserves in different orientation i.e. how it will change the power equation in the world…

With the discovery of shale gas reserves U.S is already gaining independence on its imports from West Asia..and with the discovery of huge minerals and energy reserves from melting Arctic region….U.S and Russia will emerge as the new big players in exporting these excess reserves for the developing Asian countries….So the long era of dominance of Gulf countries will be put to a direct threat….Strategic Importance of U.S.A towards West Asian Countries will greatly reduce as U.S itself will be great player in export terms….So it will bestow a great chance to two Asian giants India and China to embark their greater foot print…in the West Asia and mold their foreign policies for reaping maximum dividends out of it..

 Strategically this is the best time for India and China to settle out all their outstanding issues and march together to be the biggest Super Powers in by building Confidence Building measures and taking each small and big Asian Countries in their common faith…

With this emerging equation both Countries can have a greater say in the international and other Asian multilateral forums…and a completely new paradigm shift of power can be experienced

Now the conclusion is after reading the article and the discussions, we can address any critical question.


The Hindu

Indian Express