Will the Arctic be the new Indian Ocean?
From the indefatigable Pragmatic Euphony comes news that a 100,000 tonne Russian gas tanker—the Baltica—has commenced the first voyage of its kind along the Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage, from the Russian port of Murmansk to East Asia via the Arctic Sea. The two-week voyage will test the feasibility of this route for large vessels during the two months of the year that it is now navigable. The Baltica, however, still has to be accompanied by three ice-breakers.
If successful—and, more importantly, profitable—the voyage will mark the next small step in an important development that has been taking place over the past several years, one whose implications have not been fully thought through, least of all in warm, tropical India. Two years ago, satellite imagery revealed that the Arctic Ocean, whose Northwest and Northeast Passages had opened up occasionally during the few summers preceding, could for the first time in modern history be fully circumnavigated, thanks, it would appear, to global warming. Climate scientists, who had regularly predicted that the polar ice cap over the Arctic would melt by 2070, subsequently revised their estimates, with many suggesting it might happen sooner, perhaps as early as 2030.
The retreating ice has serious implications for the quest for resources and—more importantly for such far-flung states as India—for shipping routes. From a commercial lens, the shorter voyage time between several major ports north of the Tropic of Cancer could save shipping companies billions of dollars. The trip across the Arctic from Rotterdam or Hamburg to Yokohama, Busan or Shanghai cuts distances by 25-40 percent over the current preferred route via the Suez and Singapore. This would reduce costs by an estimated 20 percent. An ice cap melt that makes possible a voyage across the North Pole would have even more dramatic results: the distance from Shanghai to Murmansk would drop to 6000 nautical miles—about the same distance by sea to Dubai.
The commercial implications might be matched in the long run by the strategic. Maritime bottlenecks that have gained strategic predominance over the past few centuries—the Suez and Panama canals, the Straits of Gibraltar and Malacca, and the Bab-el-Mandeb—could lose their auras of indispensability. In fact, the Indian Ocean as a whole, whose maritime role has long been paramount, may well become less important for the major economies of the north, including the United States, China, Europe, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Canada.
Some experts—such as Lawson Brigham, writing in Foreign Policy—have been more circumspect about the feasibility and likelihood of large-scale Arctic commerce. Navigation, Brigham notes, would not be possible year-round, even after 2030. The price of ice-breaking might offset the savings that accompany shorter voyages. And insurance costs might also be far higher than for long-standing southern routes (although not if these guys have anything to say about it).
The Indian strategic community is only just getting accustomed to its position at the centre of the Indian Ocean, and is now preparing to take advantage of it strategically and economically. But by the time India gets its act together, might it be too late to make a difference? Naturally, the Indian Ocean—connecting important resource exporters in Southwest Asia and Africa and emerging markets in South, Southeast and East Asia with one another—is not going to become irrelevant overnight, even if the full potential of Arctic navigation is realised. But the movement northwards of shipping and commerce is nevertheless something for India to consider as it seeks to expand its maritime presence.