Nations have played great games of control and dominance with each other from times immemorial. From the 19th Century to today the Eurasian land mass from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf traversing the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush was the main theatre.
It was Captain Arthur Conolly who coined the expression the Great Game although Rudyard Kipling immortalised this in his book Kim. The players in game and the locale it is played in changed over time and the latest that is unfolding is in the Arctic Ocean.
India also has a share in the Arctic sorbet having been admitted last month as observers to the Arctic Council originally formed by eight nations in 1996. These were Canada, the US, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The latest six including India are China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Italy. While Iceland is now on the Indian map with a diplomatic mission in Reykjavik, our EAM Khurshid will to go to the Indian research station Himadri in the Arctic during his visit to Norway. Changed climatic conditions have meant that the relevance of the Arctic has begun to change and so also the importance of the Arctic Council.
The melting of the snow has rapidly reduced the thickness of the ice where more than 50 per cent of the ice has receded in the last two years. The discovery in 2008 by US geological surveys that the region has 13 per cent of the world’s unexploited oil, 30 per cent natural gas and 20 per cent of liquid gas has suddenly transformed this region from an ice cap into a vital strategic resource area. The Arctic Ocean is said to be one of the largest sources of biological protein (read fisheries) which makes this of greater importance to the Chinese.
Added to this, the melting ice also opens sea routes and the Russians were the first off the mark when they set up a Northern Sea Route administration earlier this year as the tonnage carried through this route increased. The discovery of shale oil and fracking in North America would have altered the US perspective on the Middle East as an important source of energy for the world because this discovery reduces US dependency. This is not so, neither for Europe which remains dependent on West Asia for its source of energy and nor for the massive financial interests of mega-corporations.
This new northern sea route from Europe to China will be twenty per cent shorter as compared to the one through the Suez Canal and Malacca Straits and even 40 per cent cheaper, which is a massive amount. Japan and South Korea will similarly gain from these shortened trade routes. China’s investment in the Gwadar port for transfer of oil and gas overland into Xinjiang directly from the Persian Gulf and similar infrastructure development from Myanmar to Yunnan will make the Malacca straits that much less vital. For all the East Asian economic giants the Suez and Malacca will have a different (lower) scale of importance. Of course these are early days because neither the Arctic routes nor the infrastructure are fully developed and it will be some time before these routes become viable.
The Chinese have had their eyes on this for some time and when Iceland went into economic turmoil they were there with their cheque books bailing out the stranded economy. A country which had literally become the backwaters after the end of the Cold War, Iceland is once again on the main routes. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao had chosen Iceland in April 2012 as his first stop on his West European tour. This is probably China’s pivot to North Atlantic.
Once the northern trade route becomes active along with the extraction of the ocean’s resources, the strategic balance between the Indian and Arctic Oceans could change. Would this change be enough to mean easier or cheaper availability of oil and gas from West Asia to its main consumers Europe, China and India? Would it reduce the strategic relevance of the Ocean to the West and mean a direct confrontation there between India and China?
These are some of the questions the Indian strategic community would need to evaluate fairly early. The Arctic itself is uncharted territory and it will be sometime before all these issues of territorial, trade and exploitation zones are sorted out. The games are about to begin and it will depend on us whether we are big players or one of the also-rans.
The writer is vice president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi