In the circle: India embraces polar hot spot

More than thirty years ago, India sent its first scientific expedition to the Arctic. Now with sea ice melting, shipping routes opening and Russia expanding its military presence, the Arctic region is becoming one of increasing tension. Humphrey Hawksley, who has just been on the restricted US-Russian border there, argues that India could play a key role in its future.

 

The Arctic region poses untested international challenges. Much of the maritime territory is disputed and climate change is opening up new trade routes between Asia and Europe at a dramatic rate. In 2010, four commercial cargo ships carrying 111,000 tonnes managed to navigate the once inaccessible Northern Passage to Europe. By 2020, it is estimated that 30 million tonnes will be taken along the same route. Melting ice has exposed vast quantities of natural resources, with the US geological survey estimating that the Arctic accounts for 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of its natural gas.
India has shown an interest in this region since its first scientific research expedition in 1981 and from 2008 Indian scientists have worked from their own research station, Himadri, at the International Arctic Research base in Svalbard, Norway.

In recent years India has actively pursued joint-ventures with Russia in Arctic energy exploration. In 2002, the state-owned ONGC Videsh took a 20 per cent stake in Sakhalin Island in the Russian sub-Arctic North Pacific and in 2008 it bought Imperial Energy, a UK listed firm with energy interests in sub-Arctic Siberia. In September this year, ONGC announced plans to buy a 15 per cent stake in Russia’s CSJC Vankorneft, which owns the country’s second-largest oil and gas field, Vankor, in eastern Siberia.
While part of an overarching quest for energy, it also draws India inextricably into the future of the Arctic. Together with China, Japan and nine other governments, India also lobbied and was awarded in 2013 observer status on the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum set up in 1996 to promote cooperation in the region. Given all are far from the Arctic Circle, their inclusion indicates that the Arctic region is now entwined with wider global issues.

Russia's Big Diomede island (l) has a military base, while America's Little Diomede (r) is very remote, with no military or government presence.
Russia’s Big Diomede island (l) has a military base, while America’s Little Diomede (r) is very remote, with no military or government presence.

The council’s two most powerful members are Russia and America. With antagonism between these two governments increasing and a new focus falling on Arctic resources and trade routes, it may well fall to India and other Asian powers to mediate a path that avoids direct confrontation.

It is a time-honoured example where trade and opportunity also create a threat of conflict.

Russia has now announced that it is shoring up its Arctic military presence where it already had 13 airbases and ten radar stations. It is modernising and reopening six mothballed Cold War air bases as well as building two new ones. It also plans to base its long range TU-95 nuclear bombers there and is expanding its naval and port facilities.

For its part, the United States has no permanent naval presence and only a small US Coastguard fleet to patrol millions of square miles of sea. President Obama has been condemned for failing to reinforce America’s defences, and this view will become more vocal with the coming presidential election.

There is nothing new in rivalry between the Kremlin and the White House but this region has a dangerously unique element. Historically, confrontation has been played out through proxy or buffer states such as in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Ukraine. Here, the two governments directly face each other across a shared border.

At the closest point a Russian and an American island are less than three miles apart. Not long ago, during most months of the year, they were barricaded against each other by sheets of sea ice. With that melting, the border has become more vulnerable.

On the Russian island of Big Diomede there is a military base. America’s Little Diomede is one of the most remote and inaccessible settlements in the country with no military or government presence. Less than eight people, mostly Eskimo hunters and their families, live there.

This is one of the world’s most restricted borders. The province of Chukotka on the Russian side is a closed military area and as an indication at how apart these two countries are, there are no ferries or direct flights between American cities and those in Russia’s Far East.

In this respect, much resembles the situation between India and China twenty years ago when defence issues were paramount and trade was negligible. Now, the defence issues remain, but any threat of outright war is balanced by the mushrooming of Sino-Indian trade. In the ten years to 2014, trade between the two countries increased ten times from US$7 billion to US$70 billion and since 2008, China has been India’s biggest trade partner.

Similar commercial opportunities have countered tensions between China and Japan and China and Taiwan, indicating that there in the Arctic Russia and America could draw from this experience. India, in particular, is historically close to Russia while currently building a new relationship with the United States.

Even then, the vision will have to go far further than energy resources. It needs to include transport, services and the movement of goods and people; in short, a new trading area encompassing Asia, Russia’s Far East and the United States.

The concept was devised in the late 19th century under Tsar Nicholas II and most recently revived by the Kremlin in 2011, when it announced its support for a 130-km tunnel under the Bering Strait between the two countries, possibly using the Diomede islands as a midway point. From there high-speed rail links could be built through Russia, China, Japan and the Korean peninsula as well as on the other side through Alaska, Canada and the rest of America.

‘In Alaska, we like the idea,’ said Craig Fleener of the Alaskan state government. ‘We’re barely connected to the rest of the world and our infrastructure in limited. This would give us direct access to the Asian markets.’

The same aspiration applies to South Asia, which could be linked through China. Already there is an embryonic investigation for a high speed rail link from Kunming, through Myanmar, the Indian state of Manipur and Bangladesh to Kolkota.

Estimated costs for the Bering Strait tunnel itself are US$100 billion. The rail networks would run into the trillions. But the advantages would be astronomical.

Sceptics say this is all too far-fetched. But that was said about the 50-km Channel Tunnel went it was first imagined.

The Bering Strait tunnel and the rail links that it spawns would open up South Asia to the wealthier Asian markets as well as to North America. It would also give undeveloped Alaska and the American west coast direct access to Russia and Asia, together with complementing China’s existing plans to create a new silk road into Pakistan and Central Asia. Not many decades ago, the idea of catching a through train from London to Paris was inconceivable, but it happened. Now the concept is catch one from Delhi to New York.

While America and Russia might not resolve their differences, trade will help dampen them. These two long-time enemies suddenly find themselves sharing a border that has been stripped bare because of melting ice. India and other Asian governments have first-hand experience in living cheek by jowl with countries that could quickly become either friends or enemies. In the Arctic, they have a pro-active role to play.

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