India in the Arctic

Husanjot Chahal1

1 Program Director of the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi   

À propos de l’auteur

Husanjot Chahal is the Programme Director of the South East Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. Her research focuses
primarily on the security dynamics of South and South East Asia. Prior to the IPCS, she worked at the Internal Security Centre of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. She holds a Master’s degree in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham, and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi.

Résumé : Les intérêts de l’Inde pour l’Arctique sont souvent qualifiés d’embryonnaires, quoiqu’en développement. On relève beaucoup de spéculation quant au rôle que l’Inde pourrait jouer dans la région, et l’incertitude demeure quant à ce qui motive les intérêts indiens. L’article retrace la trajectoire historique de l’implication de l’Inde en Arctique, examine les éléments qui ont orienté ses intérêts, et conclut avec une évaluation de la position actuelle de l’Inde en Arctique.

Summary: India’s interest in the Arctic is usually characterised as nascent yet growing. There has been a lot of speculation on the potential role India can play in the region, yet uncertainty looms over what drives Indian interests in the polar north and what constitutes its current mind-set. The paper traces the historical trajectory of India’s Arctic involvement, examining perspectives that guided its interests, and concludes with an assessment of where India’s engagement in the Arctic stands today.

Mots-clés : Inde, Arctique, Conseil de l’Arctique, changements climatiques, énergie.

Keywords: India, Arctic, Arctic Council, Climate Change, Energy.


As the Arctic ice is melting, global interest in the region is rising. This fact bears significance not just for Arctic littorals, but even countries with no direct geographical links to the region. India’s interest in the Arctic is usually characterised asnascent yet growing. Over time, there has been a great deal of speculation on the potential role India can play in the region, yet uncertainty looms over what drives Indian interests in the polar north and what constitutes its current mind-set. In this context, it is essential to look at the narratives that shaped India’s thinking and the factors that currently characterise its Arctic policy, in a bid to understand how India’s future in the Arctic can be projected. To these ends, this paper traces the historical trajectory of India’s Arctic involvement, examining perspectives that have guided its interests, and concludes with an assessment of where India’s engagement in the Arctic stands today.


India’s connections with Antarctica are more than a quarter century old, whereas its involvement in the Arctic is very recent. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs cites the beginning of its Arctic ties as the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, which recognised the sovereignty of Norway over the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard (earlier called Spitsbergen). However, it was only in 2007 that India first initiated its Arctic Research Program. Soon thereafter, it established a scientific research station, Himadri, at Ny-Alesund.

With a focus on climate change, Indian scientists at At Ny-Alesund conduct research on the atmosphere, the cryosphere, climate change-related biogeochemistry, and the polar environment and ecology. India’s polar programme is supported by fourteen national research institutions coordinated by the Goa-based National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR), which is under the remit of India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).

India’s scientific engagement with the Arctic has been steadily growing. Since 2007, it has annually sent between two and four expeditions to the Arctic, approved the acquisition of a Polar Research Vessel (icebreaker, research-cum-supply vessel), and engaged actively in research and international cooperation mechanisms. In terms of publication output, its research activities from 2005-2012 have seen an increase of 300% (Stensdal 2013). In May 2013, at a meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, along with five other states (China, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, and Singapore), India was admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council.

Contextualizing Narratives

Prior to New Delhi’s entry in the Arctic Council, however, the Indian strategic and academic community was engaged in a serious debate over India’s role in the Arctic. The views highlighted in the debate not only helps one to understand the motivations for the country’s involvement, but also shape the Indian foreign policy position for the years to follow.

The discussions initially gravitated towards two poles of thought. One preferred to look at India in the Arctic through an Antarctic lens, arguing that the polar regions should be treated as ‘global commons’ in a bid to preserve their pristine ecology (Gautam 2011). India, according to this line of thought, should press for shelving the territorial claims of the Arctic states to prevent rampant environmental degradation of the region (Saran 2013). Such a narrative opposed India’s participation in the Arctic Council as an observer because this would imply acceptance of the sovereign rights of the Arctic Council members over the Arctic Ocean (Kumar 2013).

Other scholars endorsed the idea of building a stronger understanding of the politico-legal-strategic developments in the Arctic region to formulate a strategy to exploit the Arctic resources in pursuit of Indian national interests (Sakhuja 2013). They have argued that physical-ecological transformations in the Arctic could lead to hitherto unimaginable geopolitical and geo-economic changes with regional and global implications (Chaturvedi 2014). For instance, melting of the ice will not only rearrange the distribution of the world’s critical natural resources, but lead to the crowding of Arctic shipping routes in addition to the currently congested chokepoints of the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the
Bosphorous, and the Malacca Straits. Shipping companies can cut sailing time between Asia and Europe by almost one-third if they take the Arctic route, helping them to reduce fuel costs. Consequently, the geopolitical centre of gravity may swing back from the Asia-Pacific to the Trans-Atlantic (Saran 2012). These ideas in general favoured India’s participation in Arctic governance issues and the advancement of its bilateral cooperation with Arctic states due to fears of being left out of the race for resources.

With the debate underway, on November 6, 2012, India formally applied to Sweden for observer status in the Arctic Council. The move came as a surprise for many Arctic observers (Tonami 2016), coming at a time when India’s position on the Arctic was still evolving. In fact, the decision to apply appeared to be made at the spur of the moment without any long-term strategy in mind, as the Indian Ambassador to Denmark observed (Attri 2015).

The decision, however, should be viewed in light of certain fears that lingered in New Delhi’s policy circles. As highlighted above, the notion of melting polar ice caps and opening up of unexplored mineral-rich Arctic frontiers to navigation compelled countries such as India to look northwards. With the resource-rich Antarctic experiencing similar ice melts, questions regarding the possibility of developments in the Arctic triggering unwelcome changes in the Antarctic were also of concern (Saran 2012). Apart from these economic and commercial worries, there were strategic concerns as well.

As former Defence Minister AK Antony highlighted at a conference at the National Maritime Foundation in 2012, China’s ability to navigate the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would have implications for Indian strategy. Indian military strategy has so far been based on the assumption that if China commits aggression across the Himalayas, New Delhi could exert pressure on Beijing in the Indian Ocean by blocking off the Malacca Straits and choking Chinese energy supplies (Dogra 2013). However, the NSR opens up the possibility of China accessing oil from the north, thereby depriving New Delhi of this strategic leverage it currently enjoys.

On May 15, 2013, India was formally accepted as an observer to the Arctic Council. It was the first time India initiated policies beyond the scientific realm, instead adopting a broader politico-strategic-economic orientation in the Arctic. To what extent India has managed to strategize its role beyond this position remains to be seen.

Involvement vs. Engagement

India’s admission as an observer to the Arctic Council was followed by a host of recommendations by Indian strategists and scholars on the potential trajectory of its role in the Arctic. Some suggested boosting its bilateral cooperation with the Arctic littorals (Sinha 2013), and some urged India to take a lead role in Arctic governance issues (Rajan 2013). Others have recommended that India should not shy away from introducing contentious ideas of ‘poles as a sanctuary’ (Sinha and Gupta 2014), highlighting the dangers of climate change, and take a lead role in shaping an Asian view of the Arctic in this regard (Sakhuja 2014).

Among all these available options, India’s Arctic policy provides a hazy picture, and its role so far can be characterised by a lack of clarity. To begin with, confusions persist over how to balance the pressing issue of global warming and India’s need for increased hydrocarbons. India continues to struggle with the same question that it was tackling at the time when it was applying for the observer status. Should the lure of profit be allowed to triumph over fear of eventual ecological disaster? On the one hand, the Indian Ministry of External affairs emphasises that rapid transformations in the Arctic region demand an active participation of various stakeholders in the “governance of global commons.” On the other hand, it has indicated that India’s interests in the region are not only scientific and environmental, but “commercial as well as strategic.” This highlights the challenge impacting the policy positions of not only New Delhi, but other Arctic players as well: i.e.,
fossil fuels which are chiefly responsible for climate change are also the key catalysts of international geopolitical interest in the region that will be most impacted by global warming.

Even if at present India may be giving greater consideration to the potential benefits (natural resource acquisition) as opposed to the risks (mostly related to climate change) in the region, it is still unclear as to how New Delhi plans to venture out economically in the region. India will not be a direct beneficiary of shipping routes or drilling and exploration in the Arctic Sea. To fulfil its energy aspirations, it will have to ally with one of the littoral states. Its principal partner on the economic front at present is Russia, whose state-run Rosneft signed a memorandum of understanding with India’s ONGC Videsh in May 2014 for “cooperation in subsurface surveys, exploration and appraisal activities, and hydrocarbons production in Russia’s offshore Arctic” (Chaturvedi 2014).

However, given India’s changing foreign policy orientations, the future of such partnerships remains uncertain. For any future engagements in the Arctic, India needs to upgrade its historical ties and understandings with Russia – a fact that New Delhi’s foreign policy trajectory is currently underplaying.

So far, India’s presence in the Arctic is characterised mostly by inactivity. New Delhi is rarely seen at the working group of the Arctic Council where some of the other new observers are present (Tonami 2016). Diplomatic engagements outside the Arctic on issues pertaining the region, such as the recent Japan, South Korea, and China meeting in Seoul (The Japan Times 2016), have been marked by New Delhi’s absence. India has, however, been relatively active in the pursuit of high-quality scientific research, as seen by its September 2014 deployment of IndArc, the country’s first underwater moored observatory, in the Kongsfjorden fjord to investigate the influence of Arctic climate change processes on the Indian monsoon system (Nandakumar 2014). This is indicative of an imbalance between India’s physical scientific presence in the Arctic (eg., Himadri station at Svalbard) and its participation in Arctic governance mechanisms.


India has been involved in the Arctic, but there is space fore broader and deeper engagement. While it was quick to undertake scientific exploration in the region, its observer status at the Arctic Council brought the larger politico-strategic-economic dimension of the Arctic to its agenda. The move came at a time when India’s foreign policy position on the Arctic was still evolving, such that many contradictions that featured in earlier debates have continued to influence India’s Arctic policy to date. One example has been the tension between seeking profits from hydrocarbons versus mitigating environmental deterioration. As a result, India’s Arctic policy currently reflects a lack of clarity and inactiveness in the region. With this in mind, it remains to be seen what direction India’s policy takes as the Arctic ice melts.

Références bibliographiques

Attri, AK (2015). Exploring a Pan-Asian Approach to the Arctic: Annual Maritime Power Conference 2015 Asia and the Arctic: Opportunities and Challenges, New Delhi, India.

Chaturvedi, S (2014). India’s Arctic Engagement: Challenges and Opportunities. Asia Policy (18): 73-79.

Dogra, S (2013). The northern great game. The Indian Express. Accessed 25.11.2016.

Gautam, PK (2011). The Arctic as a Global Common. IDSA Issue Brief.

Kumar, K (2013). Push for a ‘Global Commons’ Theory. Indian Foreign Affairs Journal. 8(1).

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Sakhuja, V (2014). India and the Arctic: Beyond Kiruna. Indian Council of World Affairs Policy Brief. Jan. 20,

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Tonami, A (2016). India’s Arctic Policy. Asian Foreign Policy in a Changing Arctic: p. 107-111.