MUMBAI - The frozen world of the Arctic is warming up as a new frontier of the great power game for energy resources, with India, China and Japan seeking stakes in the ecologically and economically sensitive region.
The Asian powers have asked to be "permanent observers" in the Arctic Council of eight countries that have Arctic territory. But existing official members and direct Arctic stakeholders , including the United States and Russia, are not exactly jumping with joy about the idea.
The indigenous Arctic people though, like the Inuit, have said they have no objection to the Arctic Council being made more inclusive to the rest of the world, as long as the voice of the original inhabitants is not ignored. Recent scientific studies have established Asian ancestry of many of the Arctic tribes.
Canada, which will be the next Arctic Council chairman in 2013, heads the debate about admitting emerging powers like India, China and Brazil join the North Pole party. The issue was top of agenda at the two-day meeting of the Council on January 17 and 18. Over 15 nations participated in this second annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference at Toronto, Canada, to decide the future of the Arctic.
The debate, becoming more inevitable and louder, is whether to continue reserving the Arctic region for countries with Arctic territory, or to share its vast resources with the rest of the world.
The Arctic - the region that is the land of the midnight sun, home to the polar bear, headquarters of Santa Claus, and stage to the greatest light show on Earth - the spectacular Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis  - spreads across 21 million square kilometers (8.1 million square miles) of land and 13 million square kilometers of icy seas.
This northernmost part of Earth looms in 21st century importance as a vast buried treasure of oil, gas, coal and minerals such as zinc and silver, as a key region for studying global warming, and as significant gateway for maritime trade between Asia, Europe and North America. Arctic sea lanes reduce distances by thousands of kilometers.
In particular, two crucial routes could dramatically increase Arctic shipping from the current annual average of about 15,000 vessels:
In August 2011, the Russian super tanker Vladimir Tikhonov, carrying a cargo of natural gas condensate from Murmansk to Thailand, became the largest vessel to complete the Northern Sea Route - which was both good and bad news. The Arctic ice melting to this extent to allow shipping meant a significantly shorter sea route, but it also meant an increase in global warming - and predicted disasters like excessive melting of polar ice causing global sea levels to rise and flood coastal cities worldwide.
If predictions of the Arctic being ice free in summer by year 2030 are accurate, the Northern Hemisphere sea lanes could gain in importance to match the Panama and Suez Canals. China is increasingly interested in the Arctic routes as they cut short hauling its exports to Europe by nearly half the distance, from 15,000 miles to about 8,000 miles.
Ironically, Russia - despite being part of the BRICS club of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - is among the loudest protesters against expanding the Arctic Council to include fellow BRICS members.
Both India and China already have an Arctic presence, with research stations in Norway's northern Svalbard Archipelago. India's Arctic observatory - called the "Himadri" - in Sanskrit language, meaning snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas - is a three-year-old study station in New Aalesund, Spitsbergen. It is the largest research station in Norway's Svalbard archipelago or group of islands, which is located about 1,200 km from the North Pole.
Also in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, is the Chinese Arctic Yellow River Station that the Beijing-based Arctic and Antarctic Administration established in July 2004. The two-story building includes labs, office, lobby, storage facilities and a dormitory for about 25 scientists.
Besides the Indian and Chinese research stations, Svalbard also hosts Japanese, Norwegian, Dutch, German, British, French and Italian Arctic study stations .
The latest Indian expedition to the Arctic, from May 14 to June 8, 2011, had a five-member team from the National Institute of Oceanography and the National Center for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) collecting data for climate change from the Kongsforden Fjord.
"The effects of climatic change are more prominently seen at Arctic," explained expedition chief scientist Dr Prasanna Kumar, "and therefore such studies are not only important to India but to the whole community on this planet".
The Indian expedition was part of global efforts to study the vicious circle of the decreasing glacier cover in the Arctic. The reduced ice reduces the Arctic capacity to absorb increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere, thereby adding to global warming; and the global warming in turn more quickly reduces the Arctic ice.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Arctic countries are concerned about pollution increasing from more sea traffic, particularly ships spewing out black carbon. Commercial activity will only grow with many other non-Arctic nations, including South Korea and the European Union, officially lining up for a share of the region's resources.
India is already an observer in the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) based in Potsdam, Germany, which in turn holds observer status in the Arctic Council. Now India has applied to the IASC in its next meeting from 19 to 22 April in Montreal, Canada, to join China and Japan as full members .
While India's Arctic interests are currently more of a scientific nature, China's military has already expressed a strategic interest. "The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it," said then former Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo in 2010. Zhuo said China, being home to one-fifth of the world's population, was entitled to Arctic resources.
China is not wasting any time establishing its polar stakes. By 2015, China plans to launch three Arctic expeditions and five Antarctic research expeditions. China has also commissioned a new polar ice-breaker ship, its second after the Xuelong, or snow dragon.
Powerful ice-breaking ships are a key investment for countries having major interests in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, as a necessity for all-year access through the ice. India is planning to build an icebreaker, reported Dinesh Sharma in the India Today news fortnightly.
The US has only working ice breaker the USCGC Healy, and the US Navy is pushing hard for upgrading its fleet in the Arctic. Testifying before the US Congress last December on protecting American interests in the Arctic, Rear Admiral Jeffrey M Garrett, US Coast Guard, said. "The Icebreaker fleet represents the main surface presence that the US can exert in what is essentially a maritime domain in the Arctic Ocean." Russia has a fleet of over 25 ice-breakers, including six nuclear-powered ones.
The choice before the US, Russia and other Arctic nations is whether inclusion of China, India and other countries in the literally global-warming Arctic race would mean: a) many hands making light work to unearth Arctic resources for benefit of all beings, or b) whether it would have too many cooks spoiling the Arctic broth.
1. Full members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Russia, USA, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) - the eight countries with Arctic territory. Six northern indigenous groups of people living in the Arctic - the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Athabaska Council, Gwich'in Council International, Sami Council, Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North and Aleut International Association, are influential permanent participants. Six non-Arctic nations are observers: the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.
2. Compilation of the amazing Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights in YouTube and National Geographic YouTube time lapse video of the Aureo Borealis across one single night in Norway.
3. Indian, Chinese and other international Arctic research labs, report by the National Centre for Antarctic & Ocean Research, Goa, western India.
4. International Arctic Science Committee Council members: Canada, China, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Republic of Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA.