The Outsiders: Should India and Singapore be Arctic Powers?

Author: Charles Aruliah

Canada will assume the chair of the Arctic Council early this week. Among the issues Canada will need to address as chair, one stands out the most: deciding whether non-Arctic states should be admitted into the Council as official observers. The Arctic’s potential abundance of resources, the promise that newly opened routes will cut shipping distances in half, and the region’s importance to understanding climate change have all encouraged a number of non-Arctic states to campaign for a greater say in Arctic issues. While interest by some of these states – China, Japan and Korea - are more apparent, others, like India and Singapore, have raised eyebrows. Still, both countries have put forward applications outlining their cases and interests in the region – applications that Canada should support.

For India, understanding how climate change in the Arctic affects its economy and population centers is forefront; oceanographic changes have affected its monsoon season, an understanding of which is integral to the Indian economy. Extreme weather, droughts and flooding as a result of climate change will also increasingly affect at-risk cities like Calcutta. Moreover, India is interested in the potential wealth of Arctic hydrocarbons and minerals, and some firms are already engaged in joint resource extraction ventures with Russian and Canadian partners. 

Singapore, as a global port hub, is also interested in the Arctic’s potential bounty of resources since it has significant shipping expertise, and a number of Singaporean firms stand to benefit from partnerships related to Arctic shipping and extraction infrastructure, particularly when it comes to the extraction and storage of LNG. Its position as a world shipping power has also meant that Singapore is interested in preserving the freedom of navigation on the high Arctic seas.

So do these very tangible interests create a compelling case for India and Singapore’s inclusion as observers in the Arctic Council? Perhaps, but this is not the reason why Canada should promote their inclusion in the Council.

While both India and Singapore have argued how the Arctic will impact their futures, they have yet to articulate a clear understanding of how their own actions will impact the Arctic’s future. Despite its distant While both India and Singapore have argued how the Arctic will impact their futures, they have yet to articulate a clear understanding of how their own actions will impact the Arctic’s future. location, over one-third of atmospheric soot over the Arctic originates from South Asia, predominantly, India; soot acts as a leading contributor to ice-melt, since it sticks to the ice and absorbs sunlight. Similarly, approximately 65% of global mercury emissions originate from Asia, with a significant amount traced back to India. These mercury emissions deposit themselves in the Arctic via air and ocean currents, and are then absorbed by marine and wildlife, thereby entering the food chain, and eventually, Arctic people’s diets. Singapore too, shapes Arctic policy. Singapore has had a strong (and opposing) voice on Canadian regulations for ships entering and operating in Canada’s northern waters, and has influence in other Arctic-related organizations like the International Maritime Organization. In essence, Canada should promote the inclusion of India and Singapore in the Arctic Council not because it provides a platform for those countries to express their views on shaping Arctic policy, but because it provides a bridge for Canada and its Arctic inhabitants to express their views and concerns to these would-be observers. If included in the Council, India and Singapore will be more aware of Arctic concerns when considering issues like the environment and shipping.

The danger of exclusion? They may decide to join other Arctic frameworks like the emerging ‘Arctic Circle’ forum and continue to affect events in the Arctic without the benefit of hearing Canada’s voice.

Canadian Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson once said: ‘There are two kinds of Arctic problems, the imaginary and the real. Of the two, the imaginary are the most real.’ In the Arctic, perception is what has motivated action, and so far, these two Arctic ‘outsiders’ can only perceive half the picture. It is up to Canada to show them the rest.

Charles Aruliah is a Post-Graduate Research Fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

This piece was first published in iPolitics on May 14, 2013.

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