Slowly but surely, China is carving a foothold through the Arctic
Polar research vessel’s journey along Northwest Passage could pave the way for commercial development in the resource-rich region
China has made progress on its ambition to establish a foothold in the Arctic with the first voyage by its research icebreaker through the frozen waters of the Northwest Passage.
In a journey spanning more than 20,000 nautical miles and 83 days, the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, made its way through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago before returning to Shanghai on Tuesday.
The polar research vessel is now the first from China to have navigated all three major shipping routes through the Arctic. About a week before starting its crossing of the Northwest Passage, Xue Long travelled through the Central Arctic Route (also known as the Transpolar Sea Route), while in 2012, it navigated the Northern Sea Route (part of the Northeast Passage) along Russia’s Arctic coast.
Experts said the latest voyage could pave the way for commercial development in the resource-rich northernmost region of the world.
“Polar regions, together with the oceans, the internet and space exploration, have become new but strategic areas where China is seeking to develop in the future,” Wang Chuanxing, a polar researcher at Tongji University in Shanghai, said.
“This voyage is just one of [China’s] practical moves in the Arctic though it remains at a very early stage in terms of commercial development.”
The State Oceanic Administration, which oversees China’s polar programmes, said the expedition helped it “acquire navigation techniques and experience in the complicated and frozen environment of the Arctic … and obtain first-hand information on its shipping routes”.
It was China’s eighth scientific expedition to the Arctic and came after President Xi Jinping reiterated in Moscow in July that China wanted to work with Russia to develop an “Ice Silk Road” along the Northern Sea Route to be a “new growth driver” of cooperation between the countries.
China has stepped up its engagement in the mineral-rich Arctic in recent years and was granted observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013 – which gives Beijing input on governance of the region.
The Arctic Circle is also part of Beijing’s ambitious belt and road trade and infrastructure initiative spanning Asia, Africa and Europe.
Meanwhile, in its first white paper on Antarctica, released in May, it pledged to further expand its presence in the largely uninhabited continent, including building its fifth research station there. It vowed to “elevate Antarctic infrastructure and comprehensive support capabilities” and boost “scientific investigation and research capability”.
But it has yet to release a clear policy on its plans for the Arctic region, which has some nations worried.
“China is now seeking resources from all around the world – and Chinese investment is almost everywhere – but we are still waiting to see a detailed policy from China … then we [will] be more clear about what China wants to do in the Arctic,” a diplomat from an Arctic nation told the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity.
Speculation about China’s ambitions in the Arctic region is mounting. The world’s second largest economy has been on the hunt to secure enough energy resources to meet its growing demand – and the Arctic has 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13 per cent of its undiscovered oil reserves.
And as rising temperatures result in sea ice melting across the Arctic, there are also new opportunities for ships to travel through previously inaccessible, resource-rich areas.
An Arctic trade route would also be more convenient for China. The shortest and most common shipping route from Asia to Europe goes through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal and takes 35 days, while a route through the Arctic would take just 22 days.
Russia remains China’s biggest partner in the Arctic. China’s state-owned Silk Road Fund and China National Petroleum both hold stakes in Arctic gas project Yamal LNG – in partnership with Russia’s Novatek and France’s Total – while a proposed deep-water port near Arkhangelsk, on Russia’s White Sea, has been on Beijing and Moscow’s agenda.
“China is very aware that Russia holds the keys to much of Beijing’s Arctic interests, including in regards to current and future shipping, so there is great interest between the two governments in cooperating further in Arctic economic development,” said Marc Lanteigne, an expert in China, East Asia and polar regions at Massey University in New Zealand.
“China is interested in helping the Putin government develop various projects, including port and transport infrastructure, in both Siberia and the Russian Far East.”
Cheng Baozhi, an associate researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the Arctic was an area of untapped potential for China.
“Russia is the largest Arctic nation in the world and there’s no way to bypass it in any Arctic-related activity,” Cheng said. “The two nations realise there is huge potential for them to cooperate, so why not exploit that potential?”
But China’s path through the Arctic will not be easy – aside from the technical and environmental challenges, it will also face political uncertainties and potential cultural conflicts in its commercial development plans.
“Chinese companies need to carefully study the possible risks before they set foot in the Arctic – otherwise they could end up involved in disputes,” Wang from Tongji University said.
There was the possibility of conflict with cultural and environmental agencies, local governments and even the region’s aboriginal peoples, he said.
In the meantime, China has started building its second icebreaker, the Xue Long II, which is expected to set sail in 2019. Also, state-owned cargo shipping giant Cosco is planning to send six vessels along the Northern Sea Route to transport items including equipment, steel and pulp, Xinhua reported.