By Ranjana Narayan
Behind the economic and diplomatic significance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sweden and summit meeting with the five Nordic countries earlier this week is another apparent underlying reason – the unveiling of China’s polar ambitions.
On January 26 this year, Beijing published its Arctic Policy in which it referred to China as a "Near Arctic State" and as "one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle", an not so veiled attempt to put its stamp on the hydrocarbon and mineral-rich region.
In May 2013, India and China along with four other countries were granted observer country status of the Arctic Circle – which comprises eight member nations of Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland.
Home to around 4.5 million people, the region is estimated to hold a fourth of the world’s untapped carbon reserves, mostly beneath the sea, and precious minerals and fish. The area within the Arctic Circle is 20 million square km. With its ice cover melting at a fast rate in the summer months, the Arctic also holds the promise of providing an alternate and faster sea passage - the Northern Sea Route - along the Russian Arctic coast connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
The Northern Sea Route would provide China with a shorter passage to ship its goods and avoid going through the crowded Malacca Strait.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping held interactions with seven of the eight Arctic Circle countries and sent a high-level delegation to the eighth one.
While India recognizes the potential in terms of reserves of the Arctic region, New Delhi’s involvement has been mainly scientific in nature. In 2007, India sent a five-member team of scientists to the International Arctic Research facilities at Ny-Ålesund and initiated three projects in atmospheric science, microbiology, and earth science and glaciology. India also set up its scientific research station Himadri there, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. India has undertaken several scientific expeditions to the Arctic.
China is keen to make the Arctic part of its ambitious Belt and Road project. It says so in as many words in its Arctic Policy: “China hopes to work with all parties to build a ‘Polar Silk Road’ through developing the Arctic shipping routes. “
Beijing is aiming to increase its leverage in the region through economic ties, mainly involving infrastructure projects with the smaller Arctic nations, and thereby gain more weightage at the Arctic Council. Chinese firms have been making attempts to invest in ports in Lithuania, Norway and Iceland as a part of the Polar Silk Road, according to reports.
China has also increased its energy cooperation with Russia in a major way. When funding for the Yamal LNG facility, in Russia’s Arctic region, fell short due to the imposition of US sanctions in 2014, China stepped in with $12 billion to finish the project. China is to purchase 4 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) each year from Yamal to optimize its clean energy supply.
According to reports, Beijing has also been pushing for some major new Arctic infrastructure projects, including a bid to expand Greenland’s airports; creation of an undersea “data silk road” with investors from Finland; the establishment of seven floating survey stations along Canada’s Northwest Passage (NWP) to examine the feasibility of development of the route.
In its search for newer pastures to satiate its energy and food needs for its 1.4 billion people, China does not hide its polar ambitions in its Arctic Policy. “On the basis of the principles of ‘respect, cooperation, win-win result and sustainability’ (on each of which the policy elaborates Beijing’s point of view), China, as a responsible major country, is ready to cooperate with all relevant parties to seize the historic opportunity in the development of the Arctic, to address the challenges brought by the changes in the region, jointly understand, protect, develop and participate in the governance of the Arctic, and advance Arctic-related cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, so as to build a community with a shared future for mankind and contribute to peace, stability and sustainable development in the Arctic.”
While China’s billions are an attractive proposition to most countries in search of investment, a sense of wariness has crept in globally wherever Chinese investments are involved.
Beijing’s polar policy should cause concern in India. While New Delhi has been in engagement with the US, Russia and Canada, its connect with the other five has been wanting. Modi’s visit to Sweden was the first by an Indian Prime Minister in almost 30 years. President Pranab Mukherjee had visited the country in 2015.
During his visit, Modi held talks with his Swedish counterpart Stefan Lofven. He also attended a summit with the Nordic countries, and later met his counterparts from Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Norway during which ways to enhance ties in key areas such as trade and investment, and renewable energy were the focus.
While India cannot be expected to compete with China in terms of investments in the Arctic, Modi's seminal visit is expected to result in more engagement with the region.
(The author is Senior Fellow, Society for Policy Studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)