Due to climate change, the Arctic Ocean is opening from sea ice and the northern waters are becoming navigable for those nations who never thought about it a decade or so ago. However, the need of icebreakers remains unaltered, because weather conditions are getting more extreme and unpredictable globally, even in the Arctic. Recently, more than a dozen cargo vessels have been found ice-locked along the Northern Sea Route, and Russia has sent nuclear-powered icebreakers to rescue them. Unbalanced powers and limited availability of heavy icebreakers among the Arctic and non-Arctic nations make Russia almost the only country to manage the year-round navigation in the northern waters. What if China, with its Arctic activities and ambitions, would become another important player in the region? Lately, China has announced its plans to expand maritime activities in the North, and to build a new heavy-duty icebreaker.
As a permanent observer at the Arctic Council, China considers itself as a ‘near-Arctic’ nation with broad interests. The 2018 China’s White Paper and the Polar Silk Road shipping route, as a part of its global infrastructure Belt and Road Initiative, imply a development of the icebreaker fleet with the first heavy-duty icebreaker to be designed by 2025. China’s policy highlights the “opportunities for the commercial use of sea routes and development of resources in the region”. Nowadays, the country maintains the Yellow River research station on Svalbard and the Arctic science observatory in Iceland, and it has conducted Arctic and Antarctic expeditions on a regular basis. Chinese shipping and logistic companies are actively involved in the development of the Northern Sea Route as well. However, it is obvious that China also contemplates exploiting the North through accessing potential resources and further expanding shipping opportunities in the near future. China’s interest in the cargo shipping along the Northern Sea Route is not only driven by commercial interests, but to a truly legitimate motivation to stake a seat for future Arctic-related negotiations.
Why a heavy-duty icebreaker to design?
Heavy-duty icebreakers are used in harsh environments, especially in the fully ice-covered seas. A heavy icebreaker is a vessel with high horsepower and displacement designed to break ice in the most extreme circumstances, such as the Arctic extreme weather conditions. This type of icebreaker is essential for resupply of remote destinations (for example, scientific stations) and to escort ships through thick sea ice. Among the Arctic countries, Russia has the biggest icebreaker fleet, and it remains the only country constructing nuclear-powered icebreakers, the world’s largest and most powerful. However, China is trying to “snap at Russia’s heels” and growing its Arctic capabilities as well. Today, China operates two medium-powered icebreakers: Xue Long 1 (China’s first polar research vessel) and Xue Long 2 (China’s first domestically-built research vessel). Development of the icebreaking capacities will allow China to diversify its investment portfolio and increase presence in the Arctic region. A visible surface icebreaking presence in the Arctic is essential for geopolitical reasons because of a strategic competition between nations. Also, economic development and navigation in the region require use of heavy-duty icebreakers, while alternative modes of transport aren’t useful for critical shipping.
A heavy-duty icebreaker: the advantages outweigh the drawbacks
No doubt, operating heavy-duty icebreakers is very expensive, this is one of the reasons why the icebreaking capabilities of many countries are severely limited. Another challenge are technological constraints related to design and maintenance of the ships. Sailing along the Northern Sea Route and covering waters between the principal Asian and European ports reduce the distance by more than 6400 kilometers compared to the traditional route through the Suez Canal. Having this northern opportunity even in the summer season will allow China to save time and money while shipping cargo. The development of the Northern Sea Route and use of heavy-duty icebreakers should also simplify delivery of oil and gas to southeast Asia in record time.
May China sail in the Arctic Ocean?
Sailing in the Arctic Ocean is not forbidden per se. China refers to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but claims that the Arctic is open for ship navigation of any nation interested. According to the Convention, internal waters, territorial seas and Exclusive Economic Zones in the Arctic are under the jurisdiction of one of the eight Arctic coastal states. Non-Arctic states, such as China, also enjoy the rights of navigation and scientific research in the Arctic waters. In order to develop effective cooperation in the Arctic region, all nations should act based on mutual recognition and respect for the relevant provisions of international law. The UNCLOS provides principles of international cooperation at sea, although it does not formalise the way states use them, but still it gives a general framework for all states.
There have been successful attempts to use the Northern Sea Route by international companies. The first transit voyage of this kind by a non-Russian vessel transporting international cargo was the bulker Nordic Barents in 2010, carrying iron ore from Kirkenes in Norway to Lianyungang in China . This event became a historic voyage as Russian companies were providing icebreaker and navigational assistance only. Basically, China is on the path to assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and to test the technical feasibility of shipping on the Northern Sea Route by heavy-duty icebreakers without assistance from other countries.
May it result in competition between countries for service delivery?
The most significant limitation on the use of the Northern Sea Route as an international shipping route is still the availability of ice-strengthened vessels of different segments and sizes for use on the Arctic voyages. China’s involvement with the Northern Sea Route seems to challenge Russia’s interests, with a potential of China projecting power across the Arctic in the future.
Major powers such as Russia, the USA, Canada, the European Union are well aware of the strategic and economic importance of the Arctic and China’s ambitions. The prospect of a ‘Polar Silk Route’ is garnering more attention internationally, especially among the nations with limited icebreaker fleet capacities. By constructing heavy-duty icebreakers China puts itself in a position to have more presence in the Arctic than other countries, including the United States. Some of the experts express their opinion that China still sees the Arctic as a policy priority, and wishes to continue to develop the Polar Silk Road despite issues with Nordic countries as well as ongoing uncertainty over the post-pandemic economy. Despite the successful Sino-Russian cooperation in the North, there is a perception that China may eventually elbow Russia aside in the Arctic, and Beijing may try to reduce Russia’s role to a supporting one. It seems like the Arctic waters don’t look calm with emerging Arctic security challenges, where China is suggesting a new geopolitical perspective through a shift of maritime powers in the region.
Dr. Ekaterina Uryupova is a Senior Fellow at the Arctic Institute. She has been working in the polar regions as a researcher and a polar guide. Her areas of expertise revolve around climate change, marine ecosystems, fisheries, and environmental policy.
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