India-Russia Cooperation in the Arctic and the Rising Prospect of Polarization in Arctic Governance – The Arctic Institute

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi for the Russia-India Annual Summit in December 2021. Photo:

The role of non-Arctic states as legitimate movers and shakers in Arctic regional affairs has been a hotly contested issue1) for some time. As global warming and technological innovation converge to make the region and its vast resources more accessible, countries like China, India, Japan and South Korea2) have all been attempting to exert more influence over the direction of Arctic governance. To this end, they have all sought to utilize their financial capacities and their contributions to the region’s infrastructural development as their preferred means for gaining political rights. However, while the eight Arctic states have been receptive to their capital, they have not displayed the same level of openness to their direct participation in decision making processes with regard to regional affairs. Instead, they have preferred to retain3) a high degree of exclusivity and limit the role of non-Arctic nations in policymaking processes.

To counter the Arctic eight’s insistence on exclusivity, almost all of the non-Arctic nations, albeit to varying degrees, have both highlighted their vulnerabilities to environmental changes in the Arctic and disseminated discourses that depict the region as a global common. As the war in Ukraine rages on and the Arctic Council pauses4) its activities, efforts at widening the Arctic governance space are likely to gain further impetus not least because Russia, the largest Arctic state, has already signaled a firm determination to be open to increased cooperation with China and India in pursuit of its regional developmental goals. This, in turn, could herald the beginning of what can be labeled as the ‘Easternization’ of the Arctic, whereby increased investments from Asian nations would turn them into indispensable actors in regional affairs whose views and interests can no longer be sidelined on the basis of geographical reasonings.

This article aims to shed some light on the effects of Easternization on regional affairs by zooming in on the prospect of Indian and Russian cooperation in the Arctic. To do so, it first provides an overview of key factors behind India and Russia mutual interest in increased bilateral cooperation in the Arctic. It will then discuss how this emerging Easternization could impact regional governance but cast doubt on the prospect, or even the likeliness, of a Chinese-Russian partnership in the Arctic.

India’s Interests in the Arctic

India’s approach towards the Arctic has taken an unmissable geopolitical turn since late 2017, when it abandoned its largely science-only approach and adopted a more well-rounded view on the region. Like China, India is keen on utilizing the commercial benefits of a shorter maritime route via the Northern Sea Route and feed its economy with the Arctic oil and gas as it seeks to diversify its supply routes. Such intents were on clear display during the fifth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in 2019 when Moscow “invited” India to participate in its Arctic projects while India’s then Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, expressed his country’s interest in becoming an “energy bridge” with Russia.5) Since 2021, moreover, India has committed itself to the infrastructural development of the Northern Sea Route with the goal of turning it into a primary route for the supply of Russian energy to India.6)

New Delhi’s Arctic engagement is also motivated by its desire to secure Russian commitment to the completion of an extended version of the North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that would be used, upon completion, to transport Arctic resources to India. North South Corridor itself matters a great deal to India because it provides an alternative to China’s BRI and hence enables New Delhi to pursue its dual strategy of challenging and delegitimising China’s Belt and Road initiative more efficiently.7) More broadly, INSTC is geopolitically significant because “it serves as India’s grand corridor not only to the largest Arctic state, but also to the Nordic and Baltic regions”8) and thus responds to the Nordic countries desire for expanded trading ties with India. For instance, New Delhi could try to connect INSTC to the so-called iron ore line between Luleå, Kiruna and Narvik by integrating INSTC with the EU funded Bothnian Corridor. Alternatively, it could also seek to connect INSTC to the planned Arctic corridor; a mega project connecting Finland to Norway and Estonia via rail which would, if completed, connect Finland, and by extension Sweden and Europe, to the Arctic Ocean and the Northern Sea Route.9)

Thirdly, India’s involvement in the Arctic is closely linked to its concerns with regard to China’s increased Arctic presence which could, so the reasoning goes, distract the United States from the Indo-Pacific region.10) More importantly, Indian strategists and decision makers worry that the Arctic’s emerging maritime routes would offer Beijing a viable alternative to the Malacca Strait thereby mitigating what is commonly referred to as Beijing’s Malacca dilemma. Constituting a cornerstone of New Delhi’s strategy in a potential conflict with China is the plan to cut off “Chinese shipping supplies through the Indian Ocean”,11) and thus Indian strategists worry that Beijing’s access to Arctic routes would simply render that strategy ineffective. Also at play is India’s desire to prevent the emergence of a strong Sino-Russo partnership in the Arctic and beyond. For India, Russia’s close ties with China is both a concern and a major asset that must be managed carefully so it could rely on Moscow as a trusted mediator in order to manage its own competition with Beijing.12)

Describing their ties as a “special, privileged strategic partnership”,13) finally, India’s increased appetite for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic is closely linked to the duo’s burgeoning space cooperation. Space technologies contribute to the Arctic governance in a number of important ways. Given its harsh environment and lack of infrastructure, there is a common consensus that space technologies will play a key role in unlocking the region’s potentials as a new frontier in global energy/resource and shipping hub. In other words, space technologies are believed to provide the “necessary means to control and secure operations in the Arctic for commercial, civil, and military activity for all stakeholders”.14) For example, communication satellites allow for better and more reliable communication while navigation satellites “can help vessels, aircraft, and vehicles navigate more safely and efficiently.”15) As such cooperation in the Arctic would prove mutually beneficial to both countries as it would allow them to deepen their space cooperation and put their co-developed capabilities into use in the Arctic maritime and energy domains.

Russia’s Motives for Expanded Indian Presence in the Arctic

Put briefly, Russia’s activities in the Arctic are aimed at achieving three sets of goals. First and foremost is the region’s vast natural resources and Moscow’s desire to accelerate their injection into the global energy markets. The second motivating factor is the regulatory and infrastructural development of the Northern Sea Route which would enable Moscow to rip the commercial benefit of an opening Arctic while simultaneously taking the lead on setting the rules of the road. Finally, Moscow is keen on attracting investment in order to speed up the socioeconomic development of its Arctic region which it deems critical for its “military posture and operations in both war and peace”.16) In other words, underdevelopment is considered a soft spot that can be exploited by outside powers to steer instability while it discourages people from moving there which could hinder its plans for increased military presence in the region.17)

In light of these priorities, Moscow stands to benefit from increased Indian presence in the Arctic in that it allows it to not just diversify its investor portfolio but to also avoid over-reliance on China while using Arctic cooperation as a catalyst for further strengthening its defense and strategic ties with New Delhi. Unlike China, India comes across as a less ambiguous and/or ambitious partner which will not be able to alter, at least not in the medium term, the geopolitical balance in the Arctic in fundamental ways. Put differently, although India cannot offer the same amount of financial assistance to Moscow as China can, its limited resources also mean that it is unlikely to challenge Russia’s dominance in the Arctic as China might. More broadly, India’s historical position of nonalignment has always been well received in Russia and their bilateral ties have so far remained immune to episodes of conflict. The two also share an important commonality in their respective views on the notion of state sovereignty as well as the West’s double standards in adhering to international law,18) which have promoted some to label them as grieved civilizational powers.19) Last but not least, compared to China, India has a better image on the global stage and thus cooperation with it tends to be less prone to international, and specially US, scrutiny and suspicions.

Seen from Moscow, therefore, the growing involvement of New Delhi is a welcomed development: it could partially counterbalance the omnipresent China while at the same placing it in a stronger position to put a cap on the warming ties between New Delhi and Washington and even assume the role of a trusted mediator between China and India in the long run. Moscow could also use its ties with New Delhi in order to improve its relations with Washington and to gain a diplomatic foothold on the Indo-Pacific agenda.20)

Arctic Governance in the Years Ahead

As the talks of the Nordic Plus model as an alternative to the Arctic Council gain hold21) and the western members of the Arctic Council members seek to exclude Russia from the Council’s activities, there is a real possibility that Moscow could respond by seeking to establish an alternative regional governing body with Beijing and New Delhi. Such move could polarize regional governance, render US efforts at discrediting China’s near Arctic discourse unattainable, and hinder effective decision making on region-wide issues such as regulating foreign direct investment. What is more, it could also marginalise the weight and role of the smaller regional states and expose the region to the dynamics of Chinese-Indian and American-Chinese power rivalries. Furthermore, as Russia pushes for the development of its Arctic resources in partnership with Indian and Chinese companies, which lack access to the most advanced drilling technologies, there is an increased chance of environmental incidents which could either go unreported or cause friction amongst Arctic states if the incident pollutes the Arctic Ocean and harms fisheries. This is a particularly worrisome prospect at a time when Arctic sevens have effectively boycotted Moscow’s participation in the Arctic Council and that it is unclear how responses can be coordinated in the event of an environmental emergency.

Above all, however, Arctic governance could become more Easternized not least because Russia itself has begun to focus more on its Asian identity in the conduct of its foreign affairs.22) In such a scenario, it is reasonable to expect a rapid emergence of competing governing bodies some of which will be dominated by Asian powers who would in turn seek to promote a distinctive Asian view on the Arctic with regard to the role of non-Arctic states in regional affairs. Of particular concern here is the potential for a coordinated attempt by China and India to alter Arctic’s legal regime so its resources are categorized as global commons and therefore eligible for exploration by non-regional actors – a prospect that stands in sharp contrast to Moscow’s own view on the region’s resources.

The ongoing mass exodus of Western lenders and companies from the Russian market is providing a much welcomed opening for Chinese and India entities to to embed themselves deeper into the Arctic with Moscow’s option being to either welcome them or risk failing seeing through its development goals; a scenario that seems highly unlikely given Mr. Putin’s recent comments that Arctic projects must continue progressing.23) To be sure, the international community has already witnessed an earlier glimpse of such dynamic. One major consequence of the 2014 sanctions on Russia was the securitization24) of its Arctic’s economic or developmental policies; that is, Moscow began to formulate policies aimed at immunizing the development of its Arctic region and its resources from western sanctions by adopting new regulatory frameworks that prioritised both self-reliance and partnership with Asian countries over the West;25) a move that allowed China to invest heavily in energy projects in the Russian Arctic and become its largest foreign partner in the region.26) Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine has provided China with yet another opportunity to further expand its Arctic presence, but it would be naive to assume that Russia and China are set to form a partnership in the region.

For its part, Moscow has noticed how China itself has begun to use economic sanctions against Australia or Japan to secure its interests and impose its will. It also remembers how Beijing leveraged Russian oil companies’ enormous debts to Chinese banks to earn itself a discount on oil exports from Moscow.27) There is also a growing recognition amongst Russian decision makers that Moscow and what it offers China are no longer dispensable; that is, China can find an alternative with relative ease.28) Today, Beijing can source oil and gas from elsewhere while, perhaps more worryingly for decision makers in Russia, the role of Russian arms is gradually dwindling the eyes of Chinese officials as Beijing’s masters its own high tech defence industry. In addition, U.S. and EU sanctions are gradually making Russia ever more dependent on China for strategic civilian technology including, but not limited to, 5G systems.

Viewed from Beijing, on the other hand, Russia’s keenness in partnering with Beijing in the Arctic is rooted in desperation and opportunistic behaviour;29) that is, Moscow only softened its position on China’s presence in the Arctic in the aftermath of its illegal annexation of Crimea. In 2013, for example, Russia did not allow Chinese research vessels to enter its EEZ while in 2012 it officially banned Chinese vessels from “conducting any operation or maritime research in any manner along the Northern Sea Route”.30) One can trace signs of this awareness in the Chinese government’s recent decision to cut coal imports from Russia’s Arctic region or its state-owned energy companies’ current reluctance to sign new contracts with Russia.31) To be sure, this is partly due to Beijing’s concerns with the prospect of a retaliatory move by Washington. However, Mr. Putin’s irredentism combined with what is perceived as opportunism on the side of an ever more isolated Russian leadership may encourage China to “seek a more self-sufficient path to realizing its goals in the Arctic”.32)

Looking ahead, thus, one can expect an increased presence of Asian states in Arctic affairs at the invitation of Moscow whose ties with the west in general, and its Arctic neighbors in particular, are unlikely to improve in the near to medium term. However, it may very well be the case that India, and not China, will emerge as the primary beneficiary of this unfolding dynamic provided that it can shield its partnership with Moscow from the wider, and increasingly hostile, global context.33) Doing so requires New Delhi to, among other things, continue on its current path of remaining silent on Russian atrocities in Ukraine.


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