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

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

by Nivedita Das Kundu

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded mostly by land and governed by the United Nations Conventions under the laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). The debate and discussions on Arctic has opened up many opportunities in the economic and commercial sectors of the Arctic members and the observer states. Arctic is known to possess one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered energy resources. The Arctic melting opened up transportation opportunities through the northern sea passage providing easy access for shipping. Melting of ice 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 have made Arctic a most favored destination. However, in near future the inter-continental transit of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) would depend not only on continued climate change but also on the politico-security situation of the region. The discussions on the ownership of the Arctic, mainly who shall extract energy resources when the ice thins down or even disappears or on the “delimitation” issues, i.e. how the marine lines will be drawn and who will control the new sea route, all these concerns could be addressed as per the geopolitical decisions.

NSR which is also known as Severnyy morskoy putch by Russia, is a shipping lane officially defined by 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 number of alternative passages and routes between Novaya Zemlya (new land) and the Bering Strait. Oflate, Russian government has also described Russia as the Northern Country, emphasising on the energy and economic significance of the Arctic.

Russia has also been projecting its power on the Arctic region through various political and economic means. The geopolitics of NSR refers broadly on the aspects of politics and the territorial demarcations related to this route. The northern sea route is expected to give Russia enormous strategic and commercial benefits. Shipping through the northern sea route, as compared to the Suez Canal route, is estimated to reduce the distance by almost 2,800 nautical miles or 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. China is energy deficient country, hence, Arctic’s energy resources is also clearly part of its interest for fulfilling its energy needs. China for last many years has been engaging itself with the energy rich regions, hence, it is well aware of the competitive advantages. Beijing has also interestingly, started propagating on the ‘commons’ position, i.e. they are trying to emphasize that no single Nation has sovereignty over the Arctic and on its resources, thus these resources are for all to exploit and use. Though the Arctic 5 has not yet agreed on such proposition made by China but China continues its effort to popularize this idea.

China would like to get access to NSR, more so, because 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 as well as, to USA’s east coast through NSR. These commercial interests have political objectives too and China has got the potential to significantly re-order the balance of power in Arctic. It will be interesting to observe how Russia balances its equation 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, at the same time, could counter balance China’s rise in the Arctic.

For India, contemporary developments in the Arctic region presents 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 warming of the Arctic. India by becoming observer enables to take part in various activities related to Arctic. As far as, the Arctic is concerned, India is a signatory to the “1925 Treaty”, concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen of the ‘Svalbard Treaty’. India is among the 10 countries that has a Research Centre in the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic for studying warming and ice melting effects.

In the conclusion, would like to mention that Arctic issues and concerns are becoming 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 for getting easy access to the Northern Sea Route for international trade and commerce is increasing 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 increased commercial activities and transportation facilities.

Nivedita Das Kundu, Ph.D, works on Arctic Governance and Member of Borealis Council (Arctic Studies) at York University, Toronto


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