US President Donald Trump’s recent offer to buy Greenland appeared to come out of the blue, was tactless, and gave the impression of an arrogant real-estate mogul making a brazen offer to land owners holding out. It is, however, indicative of the emerging geopolitics of the Arctic region, where climate change and China are fast destabilizing the status quo, throwing up political, security, legal, and environmental challenges. If we throw emerging technology into the mix—where autonomous vehicles and robots can populate uninhabitable regions—the next few decades could see the Arctic emerge as a hotspot of great power competition.

Rising global temperatures are causing the frozen Arctic ocean to melt, opening up new sea routes and opportunities to extract hydrocarbons and minerals from the seabed and the newly exposed land surfaces. Countries of the Arctic are jockeying to take advantage of these opportunities. At the same time, China, after declaring itself a “near Arctic" country, is making determined efforts to extend its footprint in the polar region (as also in Antarctica).

Chinese firms have tried to purchase large tracts of land in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. Concerns have been publicly expressed that Chinese investments in Greenland’s natural resource economy might persuade the local population to secede from Denmark, creating a Laos-like Chinese satellite state between North America and Europe. This worries the US and is perhaps what triggered President Trump to publicly make the offer to purchase it from Denmark.

Trump’s offer is both with precedent and, for a superpower, pretty civilized too. In the 19th century, the US acquired Louisiana, Florida, Alaska and parts of Arizona and New Mexico through purchases. It has made two previous offers to purchase Greenland. And if you think such an offer is rude, compare it with some recent alternatives: China drew dashed lines on a map around the South China Sea it coveted and claimed that it had, after all, always belonged to Beijing. Russia annexed Crimea by sending unmarked, masked troops to just take over the place.

There are two issues underlying Arctic politics. First, how should the region be shared among the eight Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US), as there are overlapping territorial claims among them. Second, should these countries be allowed to assert territorial claims at all? They have formed the Arctic Council to institutionalize their self-assigned rights, but many in China, the European Union, India and elsewhere are against conceding sovereignty to the Arctic countries. For now, the Arctic Council’s position has been generally accepted, including by China and India, so territorial disputes are limited to those between its members. Among them, incidentally, is the question of who owns the North Pole. Russia, Canada and Denmark are all claimants. It will be a couple of decades before the claims are sorted out through successive scientific, legal and political processes.

In the meantime, Russia—the most important Arctic country—is both building up its military capabilities in the region and promoting the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a new artery of global shipping. Moscow recently announced that it will impose rules on commercial and naval vessels using the route. This has put it at loggerheads with the US in the near term and eventually with China, as both will contest Russia’s jurisdiction on this body of water. It is delightful to compare China’s position in the Arctic, where it is all for freedom

of navigation, with its position over the South China Sea, where it denies that freedom to other countries.

China has declared that it wants to be a polar great power. According to Anne-Marie Brady, author of a book on China’s polar ambitions, “to be considered a polar great power, a state must have high levels of polar scientific capacity, and scientific research funding; a significant level of presence in the polar regions; and significant economic, military, political, and diplomatic capacity there; as well as a high level of international engagement in polar governance."

As Beijing proceeds along this path, it is likely to clash with Moscow in the Arctic and the Russian Far East. The Russians are well aware of the risk, but have little choice. Indeed, if it were not for the Western sanctions, Moscow would have been less inclined to allow Beijing to make inroads into the region. Russia is therefore keen for India to get involved in the Russian Far East and the Arctic. From liberalizing visa procedures to enter Vladivostok to inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the chief guest at this week’s Eastern Economic Forum, Russia is properly in courtship mode.

So far, Indian involvement in the Arctic hascentred around scientific and environmental studies, mostly in partnership with Norway. Indian and Russian energy companies have signed agreements worth billions of dollars on exploration and joint production. These apart, conditions are favourable for private Indian investors to go beyond these and explore fresh pastures in the Siberia and further North.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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