Geopolitics of Northern Sea Route: Russia-China-India's Growing Interest in Arctic

The Arctic ocean is surrounded mostly by land and governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The debates and discussions on Arctic cover many opportunities in the economic and commercial sectors for the Arctic members and the observer states. The Arctic is known to possess one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered energy resources. The Arctic ice melting opened up transportation opportunities through the Northern Sea passage providing easy access for shipping. It also enabled exploration of the vast energy resources and get access to the huge fish stocks in the Arctic region.

Presently, the opportunities for accessing huge fish reserves, shortening of shipping routes and exploring energy resources made the Arctic a most favored destination. However, in near future the inter-continental transit via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would depend not only on the continued climate change but also on the political and security situation in the region. The discussions over the ownership of the Arctic, mainly who should extract energy resources when the ice thins down or even disappears, or the "delimitation" issues, i.e. how the marine lines will be drawn and who will control the new sea route - all these concerns are connected with the geopolitical decisions.

The NSR (also known as Severnyy morskoy put in Russian), is a shipping lane officially defined by the Russian legislation from the Kara Sea to the Pacific Ocean, specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from Kara Gates strait between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. NSR gives Russia enormous strategic latitude and commercial gains. The NSR has a number of alternative passages and routes between Novaya Zemlya and the Bering Strait. The Russian government has also described Russia as the Northern Country, emphasising on the energy and economic significance of the Arctic.

Russia has been projecting its power over the Arctic region by various political and economic means. The geopolitics of NSR refers broadly on the aspects of politics and the related territorial demarcations. The Northern Sea Route is expected to give Russia enormous strategic and commercial benefits. The estimated shipping through the Northern Sea Route, as compared to the Suez Canal route, will reduce the distance by almost 2,800 nautical miles or by 22 per cent (between Rotterdam and Shanghai). This route is also likely to reduce the transportation cost by 30 to 40 per cent.

The Northern Sea Route's accessibility and the possibility of shortening the distance and time for transportation have greatly influenced China's aspirations. China is energy deficient country, hence, the Arctic's energy resources is also part of its interest to settle its energy needs. China has been engaging itself with the energy rich regions, being well aware of the competitive advantages. Beijing also started propagating the ‘commons’ position, i.e. the Chinese are trying to emphasize that no single nation has sovereignty over the Arctic and its resources, thus these resources are available for all to exploitation and use. Though the 5Arctic  states have not yet agreed on such proposal made by China, but Beijing continues to popularize this idea.

China would like to get access to NSR, and Russia has shown its willingness to support China. China's efficient ship building and transport network could provide China faster access to the European markets through NSR, as well as to USA's east coast. These commercial interests have also political objectives and China has the potential to significantly re-order the balance of power in the Arctic. It will be interesting to observe how Russia can balance its cooperation with China for facilitating large-scale investments in China’s shipbuilding and transportation industry by providing it easy access through NSR. Russia could also develop warm ties with the western Arctic Nations, which could counter balance China’s rise in the Arctic.

For India, contemporary developments in the Arctic region present an opportunity to speak out for ecological protection. This position is contrary to the resource scramble and promotes resource use and conservation, in view of the Arctic warming. Getting the observer status, India can take part in various activities related to the Arctic.  India is a signatory of the "1925 Treaty", concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen or the 'Svalbard Treaty'. India is among the 10 countries that have a Research Centre in the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic for studying warming and ice melting effects.

In the conclusion, that the Arctic issues and concerns are becoming more complicated over the period of time. Hence, it is the responsibility of the Arctic Council members and observers to manage Arctic resources carefully. The competition to get easy access to the Northern Sea Route for international trade and commerce is to be increased over the years. However, there is a need to address the security concerns related to piracy and terrorism, that has also been increasing along with the prospect for the development of commercial activities and transportation facilities.

Dr. Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D, is  Member of Borealis Council (Arctic Studies) at York University, Toronto.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.