Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

What Can India Bring to the Table as Great Power Competition Heats Up the Arctic?

India has attempted to enter the Arctic’s contested geopolitical environment despite constraints arising from geographical distance and limited material power.

By Shishir Rao for
What Can India Bring to the Table as Great Power Competition Heats Up the Arctic?
Credit: Flickr/Ting Chen

Climate change and melting of the polar ice cap has meant that the Arctic Ocean’s seabed resources and sea routes are becoming increasingly accessible, thereby rendering the region a new theater for geopolitical competition between Russia, China, and the U.S. and its NATO allies. Given its increasing economic power and energy needs, India too is interested in opportunities in the Arctic. To exploit these opportunities, India desires a stable Arctic where disruptions to peaceful maritime transport and exploration activity are avoided despite conflicting interests of major powers and littoral states.

The Arctic has been experiencing re-militarization in recent years as a result of intensifying geopolitical competition. However, the recent militarization is different from the Cold War era in scale and scope. The focus during the Cold War was on nuclear deterrence through second-strike capabilities and development of a strong intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) apparatus, whereas the second wave of militarization is intended for the full spectrum of conflicts. These conflicts are envisaged over contested exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and range from aggressive actions below the threshold of conflict to full-scale war, as conflicts over EEZ claims may escalate to threats to national sovereignty. The wide spectrum of possible conflict poses a threat to regional states as well as extra-regional states like India that are developing interests in the region.

India’s approach to the Arctic Ocean was traditionally driven by science and climate change concerns since the predominant notion was that the opening up of Arctic Ocean’s sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) would reduce the importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and deprive India of the strategic leverage it has against China due to the IOR chokepoints. However, it is now clear that most states, including Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, are keen on utilizing the Northern Sea Route since this will reduce travel time and cost between Europe and East Asia by about 40 percent. India has thus been shifting its focus toward the economic, political, and strategic dimensions of the Arctic in a way where it can engage constructively with Arctic littorals to protect its growing energy, scientific, and economic interests.

India currently holds joint interests with Russia and Norway in the Arctic and these interests are expected to grow. The Russian Arctic has drawn the most interest from India as a result of the huge potential for energy cooperation. This has translated into India-Russia energy partnerships for oil and gas exploration and also speculation that the two states may cooperate over coal exploration. Going forward, India and Russia are likely to sign a mutual Agreement on Reciprocal Logistics Support (ARLS), and link the much-touted Vladivostok-Chennai Maritime Corridor with the Northern Sea Route; Russia is also reportedly willing to host an Indian Arctic research station. The India-Norway partnership is meanwhile centered around scientific cooperation and India began operating Himadri, its sole scientific research station in the Arctic, in July 2008 from Ny-Alesung in the Svalbard archipelago of Norway. The India-Sweden partnership for scientific cooperation signed in January 2020 is the latest partnership between India and an Arctic state. At the multilateral level, India engages with Arctic Ocean littoral states through its observer status at the Arctic Council.

Russia’s welcoming of Indian investment in hydrocarbon exploration projects in the Russian Arctic is said to be motivated by Russia’s need to hedge against China’s economic muscle, coupled with India’s ability to circumvent Western-imposed sanctions. Despite the bonhomie in recent years, Russia and China share various competing strategic imperatives, which has resulted in apprehension over Chinese activities and wariness over China’s increasing presence in the Russian Arctic. China has become a prominent player in the Arctic’s geopolitics by leveraging Russia’s geographic and material superiority over the United States and its NATO allies in the Arctic through joint ventures and partnerships. This has ensured a secure environment for China’s big-ticket economic, infrastructure, and energy projects under the Belt and Road’s Polar Silk Road. However, Chinese infrastructure comes with the threat of dual-use capabilities. These factors add various contours to the China-Russia partnership in the Arctic.

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The Indo-Russian partnership is significant in that it remains de-hyphenated from the rapidly strengthening Indo-U.S. partnership. The partnership has faced challenges like threats of  American sanctions in the recent past, such as over India’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system, and these have the potential of throwing a spanner in the wheels of the partnership. However, Russia hedging against China is as important for U.S. interests as it is for Indian interests as neither Russia nor China can pose a threat to U.S. preponderance of economic and military power alone. India’s policy toward Russia can also help in developing areas of convergence between the U.S. and Russia, thereby reducing tensions between the two sides.

This can prove pivotal to the security of other Arctic Ocean littoral states, which would be in the crosshairs of a NATO-Russia confrontation. Of the two European states with which India has developed partnerships so far, Norway regards the Arctic as its ‘”High North” and an area of primary strategic interest, while Sweden is not part of NATO. These states may thus be keen to involve partners like India that have the potential to play a role in mitigating regional tensions arising due to great power rivalries. Arctic states may also be willing to diversify their economic and military partners in the future as China’s economic might grows and the U.S. attempts to reduce its overseas military commitments. India can utilize these opportunities to upgrade its regional partnerships.

India’s current capabilities and its geographical distance do not allow it to comprehensively secure Indian interests in the Arctic amid emerging great power competition that is increasing instability in the region. This situation is unlikely to change even if the India-Russia ARLS materializes. This forms the genesis of India’s Arctic strategy, which focuses on contributing to regional stability. In the near future, India may look to develop more security partnerships in the region for access to ports and bases to enhance its presence in the long term.

The importance India places on strategically engaging with Arctic littorals is evidenced by the port visits made by INS Tarkash, a guided missile stealth frigate of the Indian Navy, during the European leg of its 2019 deployment, where all but one of its port calls was in Arctic Ocean littoral states. These included the port calls at Karlskrona, Sweden between July 19 and July 21; St. Petersburg, Russia between July 25 and July 27; Helsinki, Finland between August 1 and August 3; and Bergen, Norway between August 9 and August 11. Notably, it was the first Indian Navy vessel to make a port call in Sweden in over 15 years and also participated in the Russian Navy Day parade.

Given its geographic and military limitations, India cannot alter the dynamics of Arctic Ocean’s geopolitical competition even in the unlikely event it is forced to pick a side. However, India’s practice of multilateralism can help the country enter the region’s security architecture in the long run as a player that engages with all competing sides, thereby enabling it to play the role of an agent with the ability to bring warring factions to the talking table. Perhaps more importantly, India may also be keen on assuming such a role since this would be the surest way to protect Indian interests in the region.

Shishir Rao holds an MA (Geopolitics and International Relations) from Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He has worked as a journalist (News Desk) for five years and holds an MA in English and a Bachelor’s in Media Studies (Journalism). His areas of interest are maritime security, the Indian Ocean Region, India’s foreign policy and national security, South Asia and media-state relations.