India's Arctic Engagement
Challenges and Opportunities
This essay is part of the roundtable “Polar Pursuits: Asia Engages the Arctic.”
Note: The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Indian delegation to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.
Marked by imagery of melting ice, opening sea routes, and dwindling numbers of polar bears, the circumpolar Arctic has come to geopolitically embody a rather abstract category of climate change. Both the climate-induced physical transformations in the Arctic—i.e., the dramatic physical retreat and thinning of the Arctic sea ice—and the various state and nonstate responses to them have resulted in a significant discursive transformation of the region. The Arctic has been seemingly turned into a site of shadow boxing where state and nonstate actors, both from within and outside the region, are imposing their own maps of values, priorities, and interests on highly complex geophysical, socioeconomic, and ecological landscapes. The Arctic is now widely seen as the most striking evidence at the regional level of the gravest global challenge humanity has ever faced. Yet the Arctic climate paradox persists: fossil fuels, which are chiefly responsible for climate change, are among the key catalysts for international geopolitical interest in a region that is warming at a rate twice the global average.
It is against such a backdrop that India is trying to figure out its stakes in various possible futures for the Arctic. The country’s quest for a meaningful role in Arctic governance has just begun and faces both opportunities and challenges. This essay will map out Indian perspectives on the Arctic and identify some of the key challenges for India’s engagement in the Arctic, especially as an observer to the Arctic Council. It will then conclude by reflecting on what added value India can bring, both individually and collectively with the other Asian observers, to Arctic governance.
Mapping Indian Perspectives on the Arctic
India’s serious and systematic engagement with the science and geopolitics of Antarctica is more than 25 years old now and well documented. As far as the Arctic is concerned, India’s direct presence and pursuit of scientific purposes is nascent but steadily expanding. In 2007 a five-member team of Indian scientists visited the International Arctic Research facilities at Ny-Ålesund for a month and initiated three novel projects in atmospheric science, microbiology, and earth science and glaciology. Soon thereafter, India established the scientific research station Himadri at Ny-Ålesund, which conducts its operations under the guidance of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. India has undertaken seven expeditions to the Arctic so far and is expecting an icebreaker of its own in the near future.
Before the May 2013 meeting in Kiruna, at which the five Asian states (and Italy) were admitted as observers to the Arctic Council, a number of concerns were expressed by a handful of Indian scholars and analysts.  The extent to which some of these commentaries, which in some cases are highly speculative in nature, were driven by anxiety over India’s potential role in the Arctic Council against the backdrop of steadily growing Asian engagement—especially Chinese—is difficult to ascertain. Some of this analysis challenged the Eurocentric view of the Arctic in favor of a pluralistic understanding of how and why the Arctic should figure in the larger ethical-moral concerns of the global commons and principles of public good. This reasoning was specifically expressed by the notion of the Arctic as a “common heritage of mankind”—a vision that some Arctic rim states might have found both ill-conceived and misinformed. Additionally, there were those who argued that India should lead an international campaign to designate the Arctic a nuclear-free zone, while others underlined the need to explore how the Arctic could possibly mitigate India’s energy insecurity.
Some Indian observers of Arctic geopolitics argued that physical-ecological transformations in the Arctic induced by climate change could usher in hitherto unimaginable geoeconomic and geopolitical transformations with regional and global implications. For example, a more accessible blue Arctic could reorient transoceanic energy trade flows and force a serious rethinking of logistical infrastructural considerations such as shipbuilding and ports. Were this to happen, in the medium to long term the…
 See, for example, Shyam Saran, “India’s Stake in Arctic Cold War,” Hindu, February 1, 2012; Vijay Sakhuja, “The Arctic Council: Is There a Place for India?” Indian Council of World Affairs, Policy Brief, 2011; Neil Gadihoke, “Arctic Melt: The Outlook for India,” Maritime Affairs 8, no. 1 (2012): 1-12; and P.K. Gautam, “The Arctic as a Global Common,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Issue Brief, September 2011. For a useful summary of and critical engagement with these commentaries, see P. Whitney Lackenbauer, “India’s Arctic Engagement: Emerging Perspectives,” in Arctic Yearbook 2013, ed. Lassi Heininen (Akureyri: Northern Research Forum, 2013).
About Asia Policy
Asia Policy is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal presenting policy-relevant academic research on the Asia-Pacific that draws clear and concise conclusions useful to today’s policymakers. Asia Policy is published quarterly in January, April, July, and October. Learn more