China starts construction of its third polar-going vessel | Polarjournal
The first icebreaker built entirely in China, Xue Long 2 (“Snow Dragon 2,” right), entered service in 2019, its predecessor (left),a former Ukrainian vessel, already in 1993. Both carry out supply and research work in the Arctic and Antarctic. The new icebreaker is expected to go even deeper into the ice and conduct deep-sea research. Image: CHINARE

CORRECTION: The new ship is not an icebreaker, but a multifunctional ice-going vessel. The term “icebreaker” originally used here in the article cannot be applied in this case and has been replaced accordingly by “polar-going” and “ice-going”.
The information on the strength of the ship compared to the “Xue Long 2” in service is also incorrect. According to the Finnish design company Aker Arctic, which is responsible for the design of the Xue Long 2, the vessel has the official classification “Polar Class 3” and is thus capable of “year-round operations in 2-year ice with multi-year ice inclusions” and can operate in ice up to 1.5 meters thick. GSI’s stated “Polar Class 4” for the new vessel, on the other hand, only allows year-round operations in up to 120-cm-thick one-year ice.
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China, the former “Middle Kingdom”, is increasingly moving towards the global periphery regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. Its ambitions have been clear at the latest since the construction of its first own polar-going vessel Xue Long 2 and the new Antarctic stations. Now the Chinese government has started the long announced construction of its second icebreaker, which will bring some surprising extras.

According to Chinese media, construction was started by the Chinese shipyard Guangzhou Shipyard International (GSI) Company Ltd. This company already has experience in building polar-capable ships, having built the heavy-lift carriers Audax and Pugnax in collaboration with the Finnish design company Aker Arctic. GSI is a subcompany of the Chinese state shipyard China Shipbuilding Corporation. According to GSI, construction should be completed and the ship ready for operation as early as 2025. According to official statements, China intends to use the ship primarily for scientific purposes.

The tasks that the new vessel is expected to perform are broad, but are likely to focus on the Arctic Ocean and packice regions. But the ship is also expected to work in the South China Sea. (Image: Timo Pälo, Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s get it straight: The new vessel is NOT an icebreaker, nor is it the largest or most powerful polar-capable vessel in China’s fleet, but rather a multi-functional ice-going vessel that will operate in polar waters as well as warmer regions such as the South China Sea. According to GSI, the 103-meter vessel will be PC4 class, which will allow it to operate in thick one-year ice with a maximum thickness of 120 centimeters. By comparison, the Xue Long 2, China’s most powerful polar-capable research vessel to date, is classified “Polar Class 3” and can operate in ice up to 1.5 meters thick. It is also known that the polar vessel will have a displacement of about 9,200 tons (Xue Long 2: 14,300 tons), will be non-nuclear and will reach a maximum speed of 16 knots (just under 30 km/h).

The planned tasks of the new icebreaker are very far-reaching, as the ship will once be able to accommodate up to 80 people, reach a maximum range of 15,000 nautical miles and operate autonomously for months in the polar regions. He Guangwei, the deputy chief engineer at GSI’s parent company China Shipbuilding International Co LTD told Chinese media that the new ice-going vessel will be ” He Guangwei, the deputy chief engineer at GSI parent company China Shipbuilding International Co LTD told Chinese media that the new vessel will be a “self-built and high-ice-going polar ship” that can also carry out deep-sea operations in polar regions, especially in the Arctic. To this end, it has a 6×4.8-meter “moon pool” from which the three deep-sea submersibles “Endeavor,” “Deep Sea Warrior” and “Jialong” can be lowered into the depths despite pack ice to “conduct relevant scientific research activities in the polar region, document the polar hinterland, conduct aquatic and underwater research, and conduct atmospheric research, marine life and geological studies.”

The new polar-capable vessel will not only advance Chinese research in the polar regions, but also technical development for polar vessels. According to He Guangwei, the ship was developed entirely in China and will also be built exclusively with Chinese materials. “Cables, steel, steel pipes and other materials for the hull will be replaced with domestic products, and the control and detection equipment for scientific research will also be made from domestic products,” he tells Chinese media. “Compared to the way we’ve used foreign design or foreign collaborative design in the past, this ship is completely domestic.”

Despite this statement, the ship strongly resembles the Russian drift platform Severny Polyus in external structure, as shown by pictures on social media. Interestingly, however, the Chinese TV station CCTV13 took pictures at the workplace of a GSI employee, which rather resemble the new icebreaker Lider under construction, as China Shipbuilding International had already presented on a 2019 model. In the past, Russia and China have reaffirmed their joint intentions in the Arctic on several occasions, especially when it comes to economic exploitation. The fact that the UN Continental Shelf Commission agreed to Russia’s claims to most of the Arctic Ocean raised fears that Moscow could now quickly begin extracting more resources from the Arctic seabed. China’s design and use plans for the new polar-going vessel are already providing speculation that its plans may also be diverted to this area.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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