Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Forget South China Sea, let’s sail to Arctic Ocean

"China wants to confine India to South Asia”, is the normal lament on television shows and seminars circuits in Delhi. While, the Indian strategic community is thrilled at the idea of discovering  South China Sea, the world is calmly moving into the Arctic Ocean - the emerging theater of geopolitical struggle. It is being widely predicted that future oil wars are most likely to shift up north.

The thawing of Arctic ice is opening up a new shipping route. The Northwest Passage from Yokohama (Japan) to Rotterdam (Holland) is about 4000 km shorter than the existing shipping routes. According to experts, “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 %.”

The gradually melting sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean is unleashing new economic avenues too. It is estimated that the Arctic has approximately 25% of the world’s oil reserves and possibly even gas and diamond. The embedded resources in the Arctic are leading to a fresh wave of competition among the major players in the world. Arctic powers Canada, Denmark (via Greenland), Norway, Russia, and US - claim to share a border with the frozen Arctic Ocean. Some of these nations have claimed parts of the region to be their territory and are increasingly asserting their sovereignty seawards.

The Russians and the Norway Navies are cooperating to take charge of the likely situation in the region. Russia not only uses the nuclear-powered icebreaker ‘Rossiya’ but is also in the process of making a nuclear powered train that would able to survive in the Arctic, “where it can work throughout the winter season without additional supplies.” These modes of transport are essential for the floating ice station that Russia has been operating since 1937. In early October, the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is reported to have visited Nenets, the northernmost corner of the Barents Region.

Beijing does not want to be left behind in the race for Arctic. It operates the world’s largest non-nuclear research icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and has undertaken four Arctic research expeditions, travelling up to the North Pole to conduct research. Much to the chagrin of China baiters in India, New Delhi and Beijing are beginning to see eye to eye on raising the issue of only a few countries planning to exploit and divide the global commons in the Arctic region. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran posits, “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.”
One is sure that India realizes the importance of the changing geopolitical dynamics being shaped by climate change and shall develop resources that can meet the ensuing challenges that exists much beyond the narrow confines of South China Sea.


  1. Hi atul,
    This is at best a star gazing exercise for the strategist and planners in India. It is one thing to be aware of the possibilities of geo political & economic developments across the spectrum and quite an another issue in focussing on compelling issues concerning the defence of the country and maintaining a reasonable dominant influence in the immediate geographical zones and the neighbouring countries. To be frank we are not even able to go ahead with Ram setu project which will decrease not only shipping time but also have a dominating influence on Sri lanka. This is just our backyard project and expressing views on the Arctic Ocean developments, genuine as they are, to be taken seriously by the powers that be, is at best an intellectual exercise.
    At the end of 15 the century , in the context of emerging western imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms, the three voyages were undertaken by Christopher Columbus to discover East Indies under the initiative and support of Spanish empire. Now just imagine, at the same time Ibrahim Lodi were to worry about Columbus rather than about Babur who was planning to ingress from Samarkand to Punjab plains to take over Delhi. Incidentally 12 th oct is celebrated as Columbus day.
    Notwithstanding the globalization, India must address issues closer at home. Purple berets should spell out issues to be addressed by the Armed forces, the Defence Ministry, the Govt and political system as a whole through parlimantary debates. This may have to be even taken to the public forum for enforcing Govt action, a la Anna hazare style. Present political establishment is totally bankrupt of any aspect of Defence matters.
    Mohan iyer

  2. Hi Mohan,
    Thanks for your insight. I would however still say that the very purpose of strategising is to foresee decades ahead in time and prepare for it. There is no denying that the immediate environment of course needs urgent attention.

  3. dear atul,
    thanks for your foresight.Well, all that needs emphasis is we shall not forget south china sea (episode).we shall not forget the belligrance displayed by china of our naval presence in international waters. Nor shall we forget the meek attitude of our foreign office/govt in this regard. Only time will tell.
    mohan iyer

  4. Just as the US and Russia have yet to get over their hang ups with their Vietnam/Afghanistan, we are still living the 1962 China defeat. China is still very cautious in its dealings with Vietnam - hate to get another bloody noose!!!

    India just needs to follow Vietnam's example.