Recalling the suggestion made by the former President Iceland Olafur Ragnar Grimsson for Himalayan countries
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was in Delhi this week on an official visit; she also gave the inaugural address to the 4th Raisina Dialogue on January 8 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) the Dialogue is “India’s flagship annual geopolitical and geostrategic conference”. India’s growing international profile was reflected in the wide participation in the Dialogue. It attracted 600 delegates from 93 countries. The foreign ministers of Japan, Spain, Mongolia, Iran, Nepal and Japan also took part in the Dialogue.
The subject chosen for this year was ‘A World Reorder: New Geometrics, Fluid Partnerships, Uncertain Outcomes’. Commenting on the Dialogue theme MEA noted that discussions would be on on-going global transitions and changes to the world order “triggered by unique leaders, innovative partnerships and new technologies”. The digital technology revolution continuing since the 1970s, with ever increasing speed, is the primary cause of changing the world in many fundamental ways. It has impacted global society, economy and politics. It is making unprecedented demands of national leaders to think in innovative ways and look for cooperative international arrangements. It would have been better if MEA had focused on the primacy of technology in global change while recognizing the part played by leaders. That would have been accurate and avoided sycophancy.
In her address Solberg covered some themes which almost all foreign leaders focus on while they are in India–the need for a rule based world order, free international trading systems, and sustainable development goals. Her views on these subjects coincide with those held in India, especially on the imperative of a predictable global system where norms are followed. Where Solberg made an important contribution was to draw attention to the importance of the oceans and the seas and particularly the Arctic Ocean. These were timely reminders, to the Indian political and strategic classes which are still largely rooted in conventional land-based continental modes of thought, on the significance of the seas and oceans to India’s future.
Addressing Modi directly Solberg said “as leaders of maritime nations” they had to be aware that the oceans were sources of “food, health and livelihoods”. Norway has historically been a maritime nation because of its geography. The Vikings were famous voyagers. They are believed to have reached the shores of the North American continent in their small wooden ships. India has a coastline of more than 7500 Km. and strategically located islands both in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. However, historically Indian strategic thinking was always focused inwards and on the landmass of the sub-continent as the dominant political entities were based far away from the seas. Now that situation has changed and it is good that Modi has recognized the importance of the oceans.
In their official discussions Modi and Solberg signed an MOU to establish an India-Norway Ocean Dialogue to look at the sustainable use of the oceans for food security, energy sources, mineral exploitation and climate friendly maritime transport. A task force for multi-sectoral cooperation under the Blue Economy will be part of the bilateral ocean dialogue. The waters which surround India and that which wash Norway are different but there are commonalities which make cooperation a valid exercise. Besides, Norway has strengths in ocean technology which India can leverage.
Solberg referred to the Arctic Council in her speech at the Raisina Dialogue. The Council was established in 1996 when the prospect of the adverse effect of climate change made the countries along the Arctic Ocean realize the need for active cooperation. The Nordic countries—Demmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland—along with the US, Canada and Russia were its founding members. It has looked at environmental issues as well as connectivity at a time when global warming is raising temperatures and thinning Arctic ice cover. This is also raising the prospect of a Northern maritime route from Europe to Asia. It will have vast global strategic impact when it becomes viable. It is good that India is one of the thirteen observer countries in the Council.
It is imperative for India to follow developments in the Arctic especially the impact of climate change. Solberg said, “There is growing evidence that temperature surges in the Arctic are affecting the melting of snow in the Himalayas and the Indian monsoon”. Indeed, the consequences of climate change make regional and global cooperation necessary to protect basic human needs including water. In this context it is important to recall the suggestion made by the former President Iceland Olafur Ragnar Grimsson for Himalayan countries to establish a Himalayan Council on the lines of the Arctic Council to manage the impact of climate change and further cooperation. At an appropriate time the Himalayan countries should consider forming the Council for the health of the Himalayas, crucial for the welfare of South Asia as a whole.
While the imperative for international cooperation as advocated by Solberg is obvious present trends points in the other direction. The laws of the seas are well formulated and safeguard the interests of all states. However, the Chinese approach in the South China seas is aggressive and has disregarded the decisions of prescribed judicial structures of the Convention on the laws of the seas. This is an example which may be contagious with an adverse impact on the international community as a whole. Ultimately, global welfare is trumped by narrow national interests especially of the great powers.