India, Pakistan And The Race For Controlling The Arctic

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Context 

Since China declared its new air defense identification zone over a chain of disputed islands in East China Sea, the region has been tense. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the public protests continued as Senator McCain spoke to a rally recently on why a European Union agreement would be better for the country. And an Uzbek delegation traveled to US around mid December to discuss the post 2014 security environment in the Central Asian region and concerns over the growing Russian pressure.

But no less significant events are also taking place in the Arctic, the new frontier. There, Canada and Russia seems to be squaring up in the worlds most frigid and inhabitable corner. The slow moving Arctic great game suddenly picked up pace with the announcement made on December 9 by the Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird. He stated that the nations scientists are preparing a submission to the UN for acquiring the North Pole and the Lomonosov Ridge; the undersea mountain range equally claimed by the Russian Federation. “What we want to do is claim the biggest geographic area possible for Canada,” John Baird told reporter.

Canadian, Russian Postures

Putin responded swiftly declaring that in response to the Canadian assertion, Russia will be significantly increasing its military presence and will place two brigades in the region, reversing its previous policy. Speaking at the Defense Ministry Board, he thanked the Russian forces for completing the military base in Novosibirsk Islands, deeming it vital for controlling the region. He added the formation of new military forces for the Arctic would be completed by 2014, including building of several airstrips. During the speech, Putin also laid out the other strategic considerations,

“Armed confrontations persist in some countries of the Middle East. The international forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 may complicate the situation in that country and even create a sizable “area of instability” in the adjoining Central Asian states, which directly concerns the national interests of Russia, our security,” Putin commented.

American Strategy for the Arctic

The situation has been building up gradually. Just last month, in November, US announced its Arctic strategy by declaring it will assert its sovereignty “in and around Alaska.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had alarmed recently that while tensions are likely to escalate as a result of energy exploration, nations must work together to prevent potential conflicts. “Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict. We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic.”

As a consequence of global warming, melting of giant glaciers continues in the northern hemisphere while exposing previously unreachable precious resources. This is causing the Arctic Council countries, and other nations, to post claims to various parts for exploration of energy resources, while expanding their use of new waterways for military exercises and transit. According to US Geological Survey, 15 percent of the globes undiscovered oil, and 30 percent of its natural gas, may lie beneath the melting icebergs of the polar region.

The Politics of Arctic Council and Climate Change

The Arctic Council was created in 1996 with Canada, Russia, US, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland as its permanent members. With facilitation from US, in May this year the nations of India, China, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea were granted an observer status. While the Council was initially set up premised more on environmental issues and protecting indigenous people spread through out the region, it is quickly morphing in to an organization focused on political and economic priorities.

Consider this for example; the Indian observer status to the Council would not have been possible without the active support of Norway. In an interview given to NDTV, Norwegian Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, stated, “India is playing an important role in climate discussions. The climate binds us together, whether you live in the Himalayas or here, the climate binds us and it is changing,” he emphasized. Mr. Edie added that India and Norwegian cooperation will benefit not only in the arena of research but will also deepen economic relations.

India, Pakistan Connection

On the other hand, India’s lead scientist at its Arctic research lab ‘Himadri,’ Manish Tewari commented, ‘what happens here has a direct bearing on the monsoon and countries like India.’ Obviously, what alters the monsoon rains directly impacts Pakistan as well. Scientists have detected a correlation between the weather in the Arctic and the intensity of monsoons in South Asia, which in turn influences the agriculture produce. Moreover, Indian scientist believe that melting of Arctic glaciers will result in rise of sea levels with the risk of flooding large parts of India. These are some of the reasons why track two water dialogue between Pakistan and India is so critical. According to the website of Pakistan’s Institute of Oceanography, the nation maintains two summer research stations and one weather observatory in the Antarctic, and is planning to establish a permanent base.

In the same NDTV interview referred above, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid dispelled the notion India was seeking to get involve in the Arctic great game because of its energy resources. As in Afghanistan, India, like other global powers, is increasingly extending its reach and getting adept at integrating environmental, political, and economic interests around the globe.

A few experts claim the cost of exploiting the resources of Arctic are too high and this would discourage exploration activity. Others assert technological breakthroughs can quickly change the balance. Whatever the case, one thing is clear; exploration, industrial activity, and any military conflict in the Arctic, will lead to more climatic calamities around the globe. Moreover, cordial relations between Pakistan and India are essential to amicably deal with the approaching water and climate related issues that bind the two nations together.