“It’s so far, but so very near to us now.” This is what Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha observed during the opening of the AsiArctic conference at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi, India last week. India received observer status in the Arctic Council in May of this year, along with four other Asian countries: China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. Yet India has managed to stay under the Arctic radar. Whereas China and Korea’s icebreakers have sailed into world headlines, Indian naval exercises with Russia in Murmansk arouse little consternation. India – the farthest of all the Asian observers in the Arctic Council from the Arctic – may not be able to reap immediate benefits from using the Northern Sea Route like Korea, Japan, and China. Hydrocarbons, particularly liquefied natural gas, are so far not as great of a lure for the country, which gets most of its oil and gas from countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Thus, India, perhaps more so than any of the other Asian countries interested in the Arctic, is involved in the region first and foremost for science and research.
Issues of prestige and equaling China certainly partly motivate India’s actions. But during the conference, speakers continually pointed to the importance of research and development for India. In attendance were many former members of the military, namely the navy. In a conversation following my presentation on South Korea’s interests in the Arctic, a high-ranking former officer in the Indian Navy stressed, “India has one of the world’s largest peninsulas. And yet we hardly build any ships.” He suggested that India cooperate more with South Korean, home to the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, to learn from the country’s expertise. As India is still getting its feet wet in the Arctic – its research station in Svalbard, Himadri, opened in 2008 – collaborations and joint efforts appear to be the name of the game.
Indeed, IDSA organized the Geopolitics of the Arctic conference in partnership with the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI), and Peace and Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The conference is part of the three-year AsiArctic program funded partially by the Norwegian government to examine the role of Asian states in the Arctic. Norway, along with the U.S., helped propel their observer applications forward in the face of resistance from Canada and Russia during the Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna earlier this year. Norway approaches discussions about the Arctic with open arms, welcoming participants from outside the region.
AsiArctic brought together participants from South Korea, Japan, Norway, and India. A paper from China was also read, while I attended from the United States to speak about South Korea’s Arctic interests. Sessions covered numerous topics ranging from the geopolitics of Arctic energy to possible conservation approaches in the Arctic. The most thought-provoking sessions were those that challenged conventional thinking about the Arctic. One such talk, by Norwegian researcher Arild Moe, tried to cool the fervor surrounding shipping along the Northern Sea Route, noting that a major export terminal in the White Sea is likely to closely as shipments of gas condensates are rerouted towards the more profitable Baltic Sea. The second session, by a research fellow at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies, Shinji Hyodo, analyzed the state of Japan-Russia relations, particularly centered around the Sea of Okhotsk. Russia has long considered this body of water a Russian inland sea, and when the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong transited nearby in the La Perouse Strait on its way to the Arctic earlier this summer, this may have been too close for comfort. I’ll write more about these two sessions, along with others, in a future post.
Like the other Asian countries, India has a promising future ahead of it not just in the Arctic, but with northern countries in general. India just signed a deal with Canada, in which the subcontinent will receive uranium in exchange for reactor fuel. Canada is also interested in increasing its oil and gas exports to India, the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer. The two countries’ ministers of energy will meet next month in Ottawa to talk about increasing trade. Furthermore, India and Japan are planning to form an LNG importers’ group to control costs. China and Japan commonly pay $15.75 per million BTU in September, whereas the same product went for $2.97 on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Thus, while India might not be hugely interested in importing energy from the northeast via the Northern Sea Route, it does have its eyes set on the northwest. Whether through shipbuilding cooperation with Korea or uranium trade with Canada, India’s ties to more northern countries – whether in Asia or North America – is something to watch.