Author : Shyam Saran
Developments in the Arctic Ocean will
redraw the geopolitical map of the world, and emerging countries like
India and China should place this region on the international agenda.
Climate change and global warming are causing a steady melt of the
permanent and thick ice fields in the Arctic Ocean. A deep water sea
route has now opened up linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Additionally, deep sea oil and mineral exploration, in a region that may
hold 40 per cent of current global reserves of oil and gas, has now
become feasible. Taken together, these developments have the potential
of redrawing the geopolitical map, redistributing power and influence
among countries even while threatening the fragile life sustaining
systems of our Planet Earth.
During the past three years, the so-called Northwest Passage through
Arctic waters has actually been used by commercial shipping, from
Yokohama (Japan) to Rotterdam (Holland). This route is 40 per cent (or
4000 km) shorter than what existing shipping uses. Using this route
bypasses the Suez Canal. A new Arctic route between Rotterdam and San
Francisco will cut shipping time by 12 days, bypassing the Panama Canal.
Since the Northwest Passage traverses very deep waters, large container
ships and super tankers will escape the size and volume restrictions
imposed by the narrow and relatively shallower passageways of the Suez
and Panama Canals. It is estimated that this alone may cut shipping
freight by over 40 per cent.
The Arctic Zone is also becoming a major tourist destination with an
increasing number of cruise ships visiting one of the most pristine
areas of the world. During the past year, over 50,000 tourists come to
this region, mainly to Greenland.
The Arctic Ocean is ringed by five coastal states — the United States,
Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark (through its jurisdiction over
Greenland, which will, however, evolve in due course, into a fully
independent and sovereign state). These five states do have territorial
disputes among them, but are united in rejecting the view that Arctic
Ocean constitutes a common heritage of mankind. The role of any
international agency in the management of a very fragile ecology is also
rejected. This is despite the fact that any alteration in that ecology
will have significant impact across the globe. There is no counterpart
to the Antarctica Treaty (to which India is a party) which constitutes a
global compact to preserve the pristine ecology of the southern
ice-continent by foreswearing any resource exploration or exploitation.
There have been significant developments recently. In April 2010, a
long-standing territorial dispute between Russia and Norway was resolved
and the maritime boundary between them has been delimited. This has
opened the door for the exploitation of oil and gas resources in this
part of the ocean area. Russia is already off the mark in undertaking
exploratory drilling. The multinational, BP, is keenly interested in
drilling in the Russian zone.
These developments cannot but change geopolitical dynamics in
significant ways. If the density of shipping routes through the Arctic
increases, the importance of countries that lie astride these routes
will be enhanced. Countries that dominate traditional shipping routes
today will decline in relative influence. The salience of the Arctic or
Northern Tier countries, including the US, Canada, Russia, Norway and
newly emergent Greenland, will increase. If these countries additionally
benefit from the exploitation of the region’s rich resources, their
relative imprint in geopolitical terms will increase even further in a
New infrastructure along the Arctic littoral is likely to come up
quickly in the coming years, to serve the surge in maritime traffic. New
ports and harbours are being planned with the most modern
infrastructure and facilities. Inevitably, there will be a corresponding
expansion of military and naval facilities to safeguard these new and
expanding economic assets.
The opening up of the Arctic to global shipping and to resource
exploitation will become major drivers of global climate change. The
melting of Arctic ice is likely to raise sea levels and alter the
chemistry of oceans worldwide, with unpredictable consequences. The
stable patterns of ocean currents may be affected — which may, in turn,
disrupt weather cycles, including tropical monsoons which are vital to
our own survival. The extended availability of fossil fuels from the
Arctic will effectively mean the shelving of any plans to transition to
low-carbon growth. In fact, this will mean an intensification of
carbon-based growth across the world, retarding and perhaps even
derailing the shift to renewable and clean sources of energy, which is
critical to reversing global warming. The ongoing multilateral
negotiations on climate change under the UN Framework Convention on
Climate Change may turn out to be irrelevant.
The Arctic may seem distant, but the evolving situation in this
ecologically pristine zone cannot but have a huge impact on India and
the world. There may be an intensification of global warming,
exacerbating all the adverse effects already being witnessed and
anticipated on virtually every aspect of our livelihoods. Should five
countries, which, as an accident of geography, form the Arctic rim, have
the right to play with the world's ecological future in pursuit of
their economic interests? If there are significant shifts in the world's
shipping and, therefore, trade patterns, what will this mean for
countries like India? Will the exploitation of energy resources in the
Arctic improve India’s energy security or complicate it even more than
currently is the case? There is currently a shift in the centre of
gravity of the global economy from the trans-Atlantic to Asia Pacific.
Will there be a reversal of this shift back to the trans-Atlantic via
the Northern Tier? Will Russia re-emerge as a major power?
There is little doubt that the developments taking place in the Arctic
will have significant and perhaps even irreversible impacts on the
global ecology, the global economy and the distribution of political
power. These developments have so far remained off the radar in most of
the world. A good case can be made for countries like India and China
and other emerging countries leading an initiative to put this item on
the international agenda. The next G-20 Summit in Paris could be a good
place to begin a dialogue on the subject.
(The author is a former Foreign Secretary and is currently Chairman, RIS
and Senior Fellow, CPR. This article first appeared in the Business
standard on June 14, 2011)
For more on this issue, see,The Arctic Gold Rush: A Poisoned Chalice? by
Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash, Chairman NMF. (Web link: Arctic Gold Rush
Poisoned Chalice )