Towards Arctic Cooperation with India

the Arctic Council

Indo-Russian relations involve a long political knowledge and respect for mutual interests in different foreign policy issues. Today new promising approach is opening up – deep cooperation in the Arctic.

Russia and India share the same principles in their Arctic policy: respect for the rights of coastal Arctic states, the idea of multilateral cooperation, preservation of the environment and natural bio-diversity, prevention of militarization of the Arctic, sustainable development, and further development of international cooperation within BRICS. On the background of the Ukrainian crisis India considers Russia's boycott in the Arctic Council destructive as it hinders the resolving of global problems. Many Indian experts believe that the West is pursuing a policy of double standards, blocking cooperation with Russia in the Arctic for narrow political motives.

However, practical cooperation between Russia and India in the Arctic is still at an early stage. India later than other Asian countries was involved in Arctic policy being in a catching-up position. Although India obtained observer status in the Arctic Council back in 2013, its Arctic strategy emerged only in 2022, when the Arctic policy agenda went beyond just scientific agenda.

Among major projects in the Arctic zone of Russian Federation India participates in the development of Vankor on Taymyr and Taas-Yuryax fields in Yakutia. But in general its activity in bilateral cooperation is significantly lower comparing to China. Scientific cooperation between Russia and India also looks very limited, as India's main partner so far has been Norway (on Svalbard). Discussions on the specific projects with Russia has only just begun. In India’s polar policy priorities Antarctica remains on the first place in terms of allocated resources.

Since 2022 priorities in expert and political communities shifted in favor of strengthening the Arctic approach resulted in increased funding for research and training of personnel for Arctic studies. In 2024 the National Science Foundation starts funding Arctic studies, including international projects with the Russian Federation. India's priorities focused on identifying the link between climate change in the Arctic, the Himalayas and Antarctica, and developing technologies for green energy, environmental conservation, and sustainable development.

On the other hand, some political conditions hamper India’s initiatives to cooperate with Russia. For example, India signed an agreement with Russia and Iran back in 2000 to build The International NorthSouth Transport Corridor (INSTC), but little progress has been made from Indian side far so as not to violate agreement with the United States to isolate Iran. The West's sanctions regime against Russia also imposes certain restrictions on India. Additionally, some Indian elites believe that strategically India needs to focus more on cooperation with the United States to counter China.

Russia has to consider the constraints imposed by India's foreign policy principles that directly relate to the Arctic. The principle of equidistance helps India avoid involvement in international conflicts as much as possible. In practice, equidistance was manifested in the policy of non-alignment during the Cold War. In the face of the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, India doesn’t want to worsen relations with the West because of Russia. Therefore, India will be somewhat cautious on Arctic cooperation projects with Russia.

Multipolarity as a guarantee of stability in the world

Another principle applicable to Arctic policy is multipolarity. The hegemony of any state is seen by the Indian leadership as destructive in the perspective of global security. In this regard, India is not satisfied with the prospect of global leadership by either the United States or China. For the Indian mentality, multipolarity is associated with the possibility of harmonizing relations built on mutual benefit and respect for interests.

In developing cooperation with India in the Arctic, Russia also needs to take into account the peculiarities of India's uneasy relations with China. These relations are conflict due to differences in the basic principles of foreign policy, contradictions over territorial issues, regulation of fishing in the Indian Ocean, and the development of the Belt and Road initiative.

Indian experts believe that the principle of multipolarity officially claimed by China is a tactical tool. In reality China's intentions aimed at gaining unilateral advantages and gradual subjugation of other states. This is evident in China's policy in Southeast Asia, where neighbouring countries consider its policy to be aggressive. According to this view, China's policy in Central Asia displaces Russia as a major trading partner, creating a unipolarity led by China. It explains India’s concerns of China's Arctic policy.

From Indian perspective another problem of Chinese foreign policy stems from the lack of transparency in the development of BRICS, the Belt and Road initiative, and its Indo-Pacific policy toward neighbouring states. The China's implicit agenda is to gradually subordinate these initiatives and projects to its pragmatic interests.  India tends to believe that China is trying to impose its position on Russia through bilateral relations, actively using bribery of economic elites and political manipulation at the diplomatic level. However, the opacity of China's foreign policy should not be reduced to malice, because it has deep roots in Chinese political culture and political thought. What foreign partners view as inconsistency or deception is considered in Chinese business practice to be the art of doing business.

Indian experts believe that in practice China contributes to BRICS become an anti-Western coalition. This contradicts the initial principles of the organization: not to be antagonism to the mechanisms of global governance controlled by the West and strongly follow non-aligned policy. The Chinese policy does not suit India's political leadership which wants to avoid that deepening Arctic cooperation through BRICS being seen as anti-Western alliance in the Arctic.

Photo: BRICS Leaders

Assessing the rapid rapprochement between Russia and China in the Arctic during 2022-2024 (after the start of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine), India fears that in this process Russia is assigned the role of a «junior partner». This trend doesn’t fit India's long-term interests because the PRC's policies pursue unilateral advantages in the Arctic. For example, Western isolation has led to increased Chinese influence on Russia's Yamal-LNG and transportation projects. In the case of China's Ice Silk Road initiative, which runs along the waters of the NSR, China will also gain unilateral benefits.

At the same time the existing contradictions with China do not fundamentally hinder India's activity in the Arctic zone of Russian Federation. It should be taken into account that for India we are not talking about the «China-Russia-India» triangle, but only about multilateral formats. The U.S. will continue to put pressure on India to minimize its cooperation with Russia in the Arctic as well on the other issues. To attract India, Russia needs to develop first and foremost a multilateral and transparent mechanism of cooperation, including within the BRICS framework. 

Prospects for the Northern Sea Route

In order to develop cooperation, the Russian side must show the potential benefits that India will gain. Arctic research in India is just beginning to develop. At present, Indian experts are not interested in the Northern Sea route (NSR) development projects because of several reasons. First, India does not have ice-class vessels, LNG-tankers, icebreakers, or experience in navigating in the Arctic seas. Second, participation in NSR projects remains of lower priority because the main economic benefit is received by ports in North-East Asia. Third, India considers more promising the INSTC, which will connect Mumbai with St. Petersburg and can be further extended to the Arctic zone of Russian Federation. This corridor is seen as an alternative to China's Belt and Road and Ice Silk Road initiatives. Nevertheless, there are possibilities for cooperation between India and Russia on the NSR in terms of creating communication systems, creating electronic maps for international navigation, and building port infrastructure, which require bilateral coordination.

But there are areas of India's cooperation with Russia that are less vulnerable to political conjuncture. India's vital interest consists in access to the resources of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation. In addition to oil and gas, these resources include:

  • in the Kola Peninsula (90% apatite concentrate, nickel, rare earth metals, platinoids, gold, chromium, titanium);
  • in Norilsk (85% nickel, 60% copper, cobalt, 98% platinoids);
  • in Taimyr (apatite concentrate, 95% rare earth metals, mercury, silver, gold, diamonds, oil, gas);
  • in Yakutia (apatite concentrate, 50% tungsten, rare earth metals, 75% tin, 64% diamonds);
  • in Chukotka (apatite concentrate, tungsten, mercury, gold, silver).

Among these resources, rare earth metals hold a special place as they will enable India to be among the world's technological leaders. Many of mentioned resources not only need to be explored but also to be extracted. This requires a lot of specialized technology and skilled professionals, which India possesses. Thus, India can offer Russia investment, technology and specialists for exploration and development.

The organization of bilateral political and multilateral consultations, joint research and expeditions, scientific conferences and joint scientific and educational programs can contribute greatly to mutual understanding of promising areas of cooperation between Russia and India in the Arctic. Given Russian-Chinese experience India is also discussing creation of inter-government working group to boost bilateral cooperation in the Arctic.

Valery Konyshev

Saint-Petersburg State University