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Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement: Roadmap to India’s Strategic Access in the Arctic

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    25th Jan, 2022

Context

Several issues of mutual interest were discussed during the India-Russia annual summit but the agreement on an important Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS) could not be reached. 

  • RELOS remains to be a crucial agreement between India and Russia as both the countries plan to increase their bilateral investments in the Arctic region and Russian Far East.

Background

About Arctic region:

  • The Arctic is a polar region located at the northernmost part of Earth.
  • The Arctic consists of the Arctic Ocean, adjacent seas, and parts of Alaska (United States), Canada, Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.
  • Land within the Arctic region has seasonally varying snow and ice cover.

Ecological Impact of Warming of Arctic Region:

  • Rising Sea Levels: The loss of ice and the warming waters affects sea levels, salinity levels, and current and precipitation patterns.
  • Deterioration of Tundra: The Tundra is returning to swamp, the permafrost is thawing, sudden storms are ravaging coastlines and wildfires are devastating interior Canada and Russia.
  • Threat to Biodiversity: The phenomenally rich biodiversity of the Arctic region is under serious threat due to warming of the region. The absence of year-long ice and higher temperatures are making the survival of Arctic marine life, plants and birds difficult while encouraging species from lower latitudes to move north.
  • Extinction of Indigenous Cultures: The Arctic is also home to about 40 different indigenous groups, whose culture, economy and way of life is in danger of being swept away.
  • Increasing human encroachment with its attendant stresses will only aggravate this impact and upset a fragile ecological balance.

Commercial Importance of Arctic Region:

  • Abundant Resources: The opening of the Arctic presents huge commercial and economic opportunities, particularly in shipping, energy, fisheries and mineral resources.

Commercial Navigation:

  • The Northern Sea Route (NSR): It is a shipping lane connecting the North Atlantic to the North Pacific through a short polar arc which could revolutionise the prospects of trade in Russia and Scandinavian countries.
  • It is approximately 40% shorter than the Suez Canal route and 60% shorter than the Cape of Good Hope.
  • It would cause substantial reductions in transportation time, fuel consumption, limit environmental emission and eliminate piracy risk.
  • Oil and Natural Gas Deposits: Estimated to be 22% of the world’s unexplored resources, mostly in the Arctic ocean, will be open to access along with mineral deposits including 25% of the global reserves of rare earths, buried in Greenland.

India’s Interests in Arctic Region:

  • Environmental Interest:
    • India’s extensive coastline makes it vulnerable to the impact of Arctic warming on ocean currents, weather patterns, fisheries and most importantly, the monsoon.
    • Arctic research will help India’s scientific community to study melting rates of the Himalayan glaciers, which are endowed with the largest freshwater reserves in the world outside the geographic poles.
  • Scientific Interest:
    • Research Stations: India launched its first scientific expedition to the Arctic in 2007 and set up a research station ‘Himadri’ in the international Arctic research base at Ny-Ålesund in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Norway.
    • India has two other observatories in Kongsforden and Gruvebadet in Norway.
    • Studying Himalayan Glaciers: Scientific research in Arctic developments, in which India has a good record, will contribute to its understanding of climatic changes in the third Pole, the Himalayas.
  • Strategic Interest:
    • Countering Chinese Influence: The strategic implications of an active China in the Arctic and its growing economic and strategic relationship with Russia are self-evident and need close monitoring.
    • Arctic Council Membership: Since 2013, India has had observer status in the Arctic Council, which is the predominant inter-governmental forum for cooperation on the environmental and development aspects of the Arctic.

Analysis

What is RELOS?

  • The Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement(RELOS) is a long-awaited administrative agreement that would enable the militaries of both the countries(India and Russia) to access logistics and support facilities at each other’s bases and ports. 
  • It would facilitate the replenishment of fuel, rations, spare parts and berthing for troops, warships and aircrafts while operating away from home ports and bases during the war and peacetime missions. 
  • RELOS would further ensure smooth use of the host nation’s existing logistics networks which would reduce the overall costs of the mission and provide a strategic edge to each other’s military operations.  

Significance for India:

  • India has signed military logistics agreements with several countries in the past. This includes the India–US Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), India–Japan Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and India–Australia Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), demonstrating all the Quad countries. 
  • Apart from this, India maintains such military logistics agreements with France, Singapore and South Korea. It is currently in the process of finalising such an agreement with the UK and Vietnam.
  • Economic and Geo-Strategic significance:
    • India’s interests in the Arctic region are increasing and it is keen to make investments particularly in the exploration of Russian oil, gas and other rare earth minerals in the near future. 
    • It is likely that these investments would increase further in future, therefore some kind of strategic security backing is required to safeguard India’s investments in the Arctic. 
    • At present, India does not maintain any port facility or naval base in this region as a whole. An agreement such as RELOS would enable Indian Navy to have greater operational reach in the Arctic
    • It would provide logistics and other required facilities to Indian naval ships venturing through the region. 
    • Further, in case of any hostile situation arising in the region, RELOS would enable greater coordination between the Indian and Russian Navy to respond appropriately in the region. 
  • Emerging Shipping Connectivity:
    • The Arctic sea-ice along the Russian coast is receding drastically. The Northern Sea Route is humming with shipping activity that is significantly increasing annually.
    • India has openly called for supporting the Russian vision of developing the Northern Sea Route (NSR).  
    • The signing of RELOS between India and Russia, would open India’s access to Russian Arctic naval ports and military bases from Vladivostok to Murmansk and beyond. 
    • India, does not have its own full-fledged base or naval docking or refuelling facility in the Arctic, but through RELOS it would have access to all such facilities in the near future. 
  • Strategic Counterweight:
    • India has signed logistics agreements with all its partner Quad countries. Though Russia is openly critical of the Quad and has maintained distance from the alliance, RELOS could strategically act as counterweight leverage to both India and Russia in the Indo-Pacific. 
    • The similar lines on which RELOS would enable the Indian Navy’s reach in the Russian Far East and the Arctic region, it would also provide logistics support and easy access of required facilities to the Russian Navy via Indian naval ports and military bases located in the Indian Ocean
    • RELOS in a way, without involving Russia in the Quad, would facilitate and strengthen Russian naval presence in the Indo-Pacific to any future hostile scenarios in the region.
    • Strengthening India–Russia partnership on a framework such as RELOS could take the Russian vision of GEP(Great Eurasian Partnership) further from Vladivostok to the Indian Ocean and the Indian vision till the Russian high north.

Conclusion:

The bilateral relationship between India and Russia has grown and matured over time, and needs to be carried forward in existing and new areas of mutual interest. The Arctic offers tremendous opportunities for enhancing this cooperation at the helm of which RELOS could act as perfect leverage. 

India has very limited polar infrastructure and shipping capabilities to operate in the Arctic waters. Russia on the other hand is the only country in the world that maintains a strong dominance over Arctic shipping and other polar infrastructure capabilities required to operate in the region. Therefore, partnering with Russia via an agreement such as RELOS would offer tremendous support and opportunities to India in the Arctic. India’s primary engagements in the Arctic are focused on understanding scientific interconnections between Arctic sea ice melting and changes in Indian monsoon systems. India still cannot afford to lose the sight of geopolitical and geo-economic transitions emerging in the region, where states like China are pursuing dominant economic and strategic posturing in the region.

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