A sea lane promising all manner of possibilities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 2010, 12:00am

Innovation and entrepreneurship have contributed to China's rising prosperity. And it is these attributes that lie behind the voyage of the Hong Kong-flagged carrier, Nordic Barents.

The ship is making history as it sails from Europe through Russia's Arctic north along the famous northeast passage to Dalian , Qingdao and possibly further south. It's the first commercial foreign navigation of the treacherous sea lane despite five centuries of trying by sailors. If successful, it will open up all manner of trade and resources possibilities.

China's economy has grown dramatically because opportunities have been looked for and grasped. There's a good measure of the trailblazing spirit in the voyage of the iron-ore-laden ship, but a much bigger measure of opportunism. Global warming has meant that Arctic waters are not as ice-packed in summer as before. With foresight, Russia's approval and the support of its ice-breakers, a journey that was once a dream becomes possible.

The advantages of the route over sailing through the Suez Canal or around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope are considerable. At least eight days can be shaved off the trip and US$180,000 in fuel costs saved; not only that, but the carbon footprint will be greatly reduced and pirate-infested waters off Somalia and in the Indian Ocean avoided. In a globalised world where getting shipments quickly and safely from port to port is integral to keeping economies moving, such matters are priorities for companies. The Scandinavian owner and charterer of the ship and the mainland buyer of the cargo have taken a bold step that, if successful, has the potential to open a shipping bonanza for East Asia.

It's not all plain sailing. The sea lanes are likely to be sufficiently free of ice to allow for journeys for only a few months a year. Even then, vessels will need to be 'ice class', having an extra layer of protective steel on their hulls and be escorted by Russian ice-breakers in case of difficulties. The size of their cargoes will be limited because of draft restrictions in Arctic waters. There will also be uncertainties from year to year; the extent to which the passage can be navigated will depend on how much ice has melted.

Uncertainties abound with climate change. Some scientists believe that higher temperatures will mean more unpredictable weather patterns. Arctic ice is shrinking in area and melting faster in summer months than previously recorded, but whether this will continue at present rates cannot be forecast reliably. That may restrict cargoes to ones that aren't time-sensitive, such as fertiliser, and rule out those that depend on schedules.

Challenges like these drive entrepreneurs. The opening of the passage would mean a more economic route between Asia and Europe, but countless other business opportunities could also be created. The Russian Arctic is rich in oil, gas and minerals, after all. That is of great interest to China, Japan and South Korea, which are constantly jockeying for these valuable resources.

Russia is central to progress. All shipping through the passage has to be sanctioned by its government. It needs to build ports in Siberia and intensify exploration and extraction. Populations will shift and grow. New markets for Chinese-made goods will be created.

The possibilities created by the opening of the northeast passage are many and varied. They are ones that China, Russia and European nations cannot ignore. We have got climate change to thank, but will need co-operation for progress. The Nordic Barents is making a historic voyage that holds out hope on so many levels.