Mariners first sought a northern passage across the roof of the world from Europe to the riches of the Orient centuries ago. So it is a surprise, to this Bystander at least, that what is said to be the first Chinese ship to make the voyage in the opposite direction has only just done so. The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, an icebreaker in the commission of the Polar Research Institute of China and which also has the distinction of being the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, arrived in Iceland earlier this week after sailing north along the coast of Russia and then weaving its way through five of the seas that comprise the Arctic Ocean. The photo above shows the Xue Long off the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. More photographs here.
Global warming is opening up the Arctic Ocean as a feasible trade route between Asia and Europe, one that is much shorter and less pirate infested than going west via the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. It is also a region rich in natural resources. Russia’s state oil and gas companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, are already active on the Arctic shelf. China has joined the group of countries seeking to set limits on the extent of continental shelf economic rights. Meanwhile, Beijing is putting resources behind improving its deep seabed exploration capabilities.
A direct sea lane between China and Western Europe would enhance Iceland’s position as strategic partner for Beijing. It was there that Premier Wen Jiabao started his tour of northern Europe in April this year. Five years ago the two countries talked about free-trade agreement. Had it happened it would have been China’s first with a European country. The two are cooperating on developing geothermal technologies and resources in China and Africa.
China has a hard scientific interest in the Arctic. Recent research suggests that rapid sea ice melt there could be causing more cold, snowy winters in China, as it is in northern Europe and North America, by altering the jet stream. The Polar Research Institute founded its Yellow River research station in the Arctic as long ago as 2003. The Xue Long’s current trip is pitched as one of atmospheric and oceanographic research. China’s first observation buoy in the region will be set up during a later leg of the voyage.
Yet geo-politics are never far away. The attention given to last year’s flap over a proposed purchase of one of the largest tracts of land on Iceland by property developer and Icelandophile, Huang Nubo, seen as a beachhead for greater Chinese presence on the island, underlined international misgivings about China’s interest in the region. Beijing has also applied for membership of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental group that oversees management of the region and comprises the eight powers that actually have territory there: Washington, Moscow, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Beijing is not the only outsider that wants in. Tokyo and Seoul have also applied for membership as has the EU as a group, and New Delhi come to that. The outsiders will inevitably have different interests from the locals, potentially changing the scope of the Council. At best Beijing can hope to be given observer status next year, when the applications will be considered. Regardless, Beijing is expanding its polar research program and building a second icebreaker. Few can doubt that China’s mariners, fishermen, scientists and petroleum engineers will be plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever greater number.