Will it be the next geopolitical battleground or remain the common heritage of humankind?

A retired Rear Admiral of the Chinese PLA Navy, Yin Zhuo, caused a major stir in March 2010, when in a speech to the Chinese Peoples' Political Consultative Conference, he declared: “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” China, he said, must also have a share of the region's resources.

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Resources, reserves

The five nations which ring the Arctic Ocean, namely the U.S. Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia, disagree, though they themselves have competing territorial claims. The stakes are enormous:

The Arctic Circle encloses 21 million square kilometres of land and 13 million sq.km of mostly ice-bound seas. By way of comparison, India's total land area is 3.3 million sq.km.

It is estimated that the region may hold over 40 per cent of the current global reserves of oil and gas. There may also be significant reserves of coal, zinc and silver. As global warming causes the ice to melt, even for limited periods, the commercial exploitation of these resources is becoming feasible. In January 2011, the multinational oil major, BP, concluded a strategic alliance with the Russian State Company, Rosneft, to exploit the hydrocarbon resources in the Russian Arctic.

Arctic shipping has become a reality in the summer months. The Northwest passage, mainly along Canada's Arctic Coast, will link Far East Asia with North America, while the North-East Passage, mainly along Russia's Arctic shoreline, would provide an alternate route between Asia and North America, but also between Europe and Asia. These Arctic routes, which used to be the stuff of fables in the 18th and 19th centuries, will cut global shipping routes by several thousand kilometres. For example, the Arctic route from Rotterdam (Holland) to San Francisco will be 4,000 km shorter than the existing route. This route has already been used in the past two summers by commercial shipping. As the density of Arctic shipping increases, so will the geopolitical importance of the Northern Tier countries.

The Arctic region is now becoming a popular tourist destination. In 2010, over 50,000 tourists sailed the pristine waters of a hitherto forbidden zone.

The Antarctic

It is, therefore, easy to see why the countries that lie on the Arctic littoral, are keen to monopolise the resources of the region, shutting out any interlopers including China. The sharpening tensions arising out of long-standing territorial disputes among the Arctic countries are also a consequence of the prospects of significant economic and strategic gains that could be made from exploiting the locational advantages and potential resources of this vast frozen expanse.

The current scramble one witnesses in the Arctic is in sharp contrast to the relative tranquillity which prevails over the opposite end of the Earth, the Antarctic. In a rare example of cooperation among the major powers, the Antarctica Treaty was concluded in 1959, permitting only research and scientific activity in the vast icy continent, shelving for the time being, any competing territorial claims.

The Antarctica is a continent, unlike the Arctic, which is an ocean, but it is also covers a vast area, approximately 14 million sq.km, covered in a thick layer of ice. The Antarctic, like the Arctic, is also estimated to hold vast reserves of hydrocarbons and rare minerals. Global warming is also leading to the melting of the permanent ice in the southern summer and there could well be a fraying of the compromise arrived at among the Antarctic Treaty partners. Territorial claims, which have been frozen for the duration of the Treaty, may well be revived. What happens in the Arctic may well trigger a negative change in the Antarctic.

Is the world on the threshold of a new geopolitical contest, centred on the warming waters of the Arctic? If the shipping routes through the Arctic become more dense, the countries that lie astride these routes, will gain in importance. The exploitation of the rich resources of the region will add to the wealth and economic significance of the already affluent U.S., Canada and northern European countries. Russia may be the most prominent beneficiary of this shift, not only because it occupies the largest part of the Arctic, but also because it has the most experience in dealing with the harsh conditions that will continue to prevail in the region. The relative importance of countries that currently dominate global shipping routes will decline; the strategic chokepoints of the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Bosphorous and the Malacca Straits, would lose much of their economic importance. The distribution of the world's critical resources would be drastically rearranged, giving greater leverage to the U.S., Canada, Russia and northern Europe. The geopolitical centre of gravity may well swing back from the Asia-Pacific to the trans-Atlantic.

Element of irony

It is ironic that while on the one hand the world is grappling with global warming triggered by climate change, the world's major powers are scrambling to profit from its consequences in the fragile Arctic zone. There is a deliberate effort to minimise the dangers of the melting of Arctic ice, which may affect the chemical composition of the world's oceans, raise sea-levels, affect ocean currents and thereby weather patterns across the globe, including our own monsoons, which are vital to our survival.

It is well established that the challenge of global climate change cannot be addressed unless there is a worldwide, accelerated and strategic shift from production and consumption patterns that rely on carbon based fossil fuels to those based on renewable sources of energy such as solar power and clean sources of energy such as nuclear power. And yet, all available evidence points to fossil fuel use not only continuing but being significantly expanded in the coming years.

The British economist, Lord Nicolas Stern recently pointed out (Financial Times, December 8, 2011) that the world's largest coal, oil and gas companies are basing their current operations and future plans on the assumption that there will be no barriers to rising emissions from fossil fuel use, despite this being the stated policy of both governments and companies. The unseemly rush for Arctic resources is just the most glaring example of this. The ongoing multilateral negotiations on climate change under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change may soon become irrelevant.

The industrialised countries lose no opportunity to preach a low carbon growth strategy to developing countries like India on grounds that this is globally responsible behaviour. And yet their actions, including in the Arctic, demonstrate their intention of intensifying their own carbon intensive life styles.

The depleting rainforests in the Amazon basin in Latin America, Central Africa and the Indonesian archipelago have been declared “global commons,” on grounds that their preservation is vital to maintaining the health of the global eco-system. These ecological resources, it is argued, cannot be treated as exclusive national resources by the countries in which they are located. The rest of the world has a legitimate interest in their being managed in an environmentally sound manner. By the same token, the preservation of the extremely fragile ecology of the Arctic, whose disturbance may adversely affect the survival of peoples across the planet, is of vital concern to the international community. The Arctic Ocean is as much a “global commons” as is the Antarctica. Non-Arctic countries like India need to assert their right to have their say in the management of the Arctic. This cannot be the exclusive privilege of the Arctic littoral countries. India should mobilise international public opinion in favour of declaring the Arctic a common heritage of mankind and sponsoring an international legal regime on the lines of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty.

Role for India

There may be voices in this country who may argue that India should follow China in seeking a share in the exploitation of Arctic resources to fuel its continuing economic growth. This would be short-sighted. It ignores the much greater damage compared to any possible benefits that India may have to bear if the Arctic continues to be ravaged by unchecked human greed. Further, India possesses neither the financial nor technological capabilities to match the countries in the forefront of the current Arctic scramble. The available pickings may prove to be meagre.

India should consider carefully whether it should pursue its reported application to join the Arctic Council as a permanent observer. The Council was set up in 1996 and has eight members viz. U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. There are five permanent observers viz. the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy. Brazil, China, Japan and South Korea have also expressed an interest in becoming permanent members. However, it should be noted that a condition for being granted this status is acceptance of the sovereign rights of the Arctic Council members over the Arctic Ocean. India should instead press for the Antarctic Treaty template where the territorial claims of States have been shelved for the duration of the Treaty. The reasons for which the international community accepted the discipline of the Antarctic Treaty are today even more compelling and urgent with respect to the Arctic. Placing this on the U.N. agenda during India's term in the Security Council and initiating international action on it could be a historic contribution by India in its role as a responsible global power.

(Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary. He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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