Last year a Chinese ship set sail from the Norwegian coast and instead of taking a normal circuitous route, cruised past the Arctic Ocean on a new course via North Pole to connect its mainland with Europe. Though the attempt failed in the absence of heavy-duty ice-cutters, it marked the beginning of a new global game.
Not just the Arctic Ocean countries (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US), but Beijing as well as other international players have set their sights on controlling new trade routes when the vast oil, gas and mineral reserves in the Arctic continent may be
Experts believe that with the absence of an Arctic policy and shying away from joining discussions on the ownership of the North Pole, coupled with the frosty relations with Denmark and Russia, India was heading for a near diplomatic disaster.
Earlier, a Denmark-owned Nordic Barents ship succeeded in passing through the North Pole in 2010 along the Siberian coast to connect Norway with China.
The passage is 30% shorter than the usual shipping lanes via the Suez canal and the piracy-prone Malacca Straits and the Gulf of Aden.
The Chinese are eyeing to connect their far east with the coast of Canada and even Alaska.
The newly-appointed Danish ambassador for the Arctic, Klavs A Holm admits that the region has gained increased political and economic importance thanks to oil extraction potential, minerals and increased maritime traffic. He, however, cautions that though there are development opportunities, there are also great risks for people and for the environment.
Holms says the Denmark Commonwealth, which comprises Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Greenland, has also joined the hunt for fossil fuel and sea routes.
However, author Martin Breum, who spent four months in Greenland and travelled to North Pole and has written, “When the ice disappears — Denmark as a major Arctic power, the oil in Greenland and the fight over the North Pole”, says that economic significance of the region has been blown up out of proportion.
“Yes, there are fossil fuel reserves, but extraction is uneconomical for any business venture,” he told DNA. But, he agrees that war was more to control Arctic routes and the countries were jostling to show their authority on the North Pole.
China exhibited its fast-growing interest by exploring a route to Europe via North Pole, he says. India, he adds, has not yet even shown the interest to join the international Arctic Council, though it has observer status at its technical council.
Even, though India has hired a remote northern most Norwegian island Spitsberpergen for scientific experiments, its frosty relations with Denmark have further squeezed India’s diplomatic clout in the region.
India has downgraded its diplomatic contacts with Copenhagen following a court refusal to extradite Kim Davy, a key accused in the Puralia arms drop case.
Over the past few years, the local government in Greenland has been increasingly asserting itself, looking to foreign countries for investment in extracting minerals.
Though the region is a part of Denmark, it enjoys self-rule since 2009, has its own prime minister but its foreign affairs, currency and defence are vested with the Copenhagen.
But with the discovery of mineral wealth last week, it sent one of its senior ministers to visit Beijing to negotiate an agreement with the government officials and Chinese Bank. Though officials in Copenhagen dismiss apprehensions of Greenland now charting its own diplomatic course, privately they admit a new situation was emerging with China directly goading the island.
There have been suggestions that the Arctic region should be made a zone of international heritage and disengagement.
Breum says while it was an easy solution for the South Pole, which was uninhabited, the rims of Arctic Oceans are habited by indigenous tribes and according to UN laws of seas, the extended economic zones of Russia, Canada and Denmark overlap at the North Pole.
Another challenge is the idea of setting up a “mini-NATO” in the Arctic region. The name refers to a proposed military bloc of Scandinavian countries, ex-Soviet Baltic republics and the United Kingdom, which many describe as the “response to Russian claims on the North Pole.”