Tag Archives: Arctic

China Reaffirms Its Arctic Ambition

Drift ice in the Arctic Ocean seen from the deck of the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, 2010. Photo credit: Timo Palo. Licenced under Creative Commons

THIS BYSTANDER NOTED China’s Arctic ambition as long ago as 2010. Since then global warming has made northern shipping routes from Asia to Europe through the Arctic only more feasible as summer sea ice has further diminished.

In 2013, China acquired observer status at the Arctic Council, which comprises nations with an Arctic littoral (full members) or an interest in the region (observers). The previous year, the Ukraine-built diesel-powered Xue Long (Snow Dragon; seen above in 2010) then the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, had made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north.

It has been participating in Arctic research trips since 1999; China has had a research station on the Spitzbergen Archipelago since 2004. A larger and stronger indigenously designed version, the Xue Long 2, is due to come into service next year. It will be a hybrid research vessel-ice breaker that can carry up to 90 scientists and crew. Nuclear-powered icebreakers will follow. Development contracts were signed between the National Nuclear Corporation and State Shipbuilding Corporation in 2016.

Not only would a northern route through the Arctic lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa, it would also make drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.

On Friday, the State Council Information Office, the government information office directed towards foreign audiences, released an English-language white paper, China’s Arctic Policy, that sets out Beijing’s intentions towards the development (and conservation) of Arctic resources over the coming decades, in particular, shipping routes.

It manages to slip in the presumably intentionally eye-catching phrase, Polar Silk Road, there times but the document is mainly an affirmation of the long-standing position that China sees itself as having interests in the Arctic and intends to be active in the region’s economic development and governance.

Chinese mariners, fishermen, scientists, petroleum engineers and even tourists plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever more significant number, will concern Russia, for one. The United States will see yet more evidence of China’s asserting itself globally, notably when the white paper says responsibility for the region now goes beyond the eight nations, including Russia and the United States, with territorial sovereignty in the Arctic.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under China-Russia, China-U.S., Environment, Trade

China Granted Arctic Council Observer Status

Being granted observer status at the Arctic Council is a significant step forward for China’s trade and energy ambitions on the roof of the world. A northern route through the Arctic would lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa.

Global warming makes alternative northern routes feasible, at least in the summer months, which offer the promise of an ice-free northwestern passage to Europe. It also makes drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.

Beijing has been beefing up its Arctic research and is building a new high-tech polar expedition ice-breaker due to be in service next year. China already has the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Ukraine-built Xue Long (Snow Dragon) which last year made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north. Chinese mining companies are starting to invest in Greenland’s mineral resources and last month Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland, with which it is also cooperating on geothermal energy.

The full members of the Arctic Council — the Nordic countries, Canada, the U.S. and Russia — all have an Arctic coasts, which China self-evidently does not. Observer status, which it now shares with Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Italy, gives China the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.

China’s regional push into Africa and the Indian Ocean has met some resistance. Beijing is likely to continue to move cautiously if determinedly in the Arctic, not least because Russia, with its long Arctic coastline, sees itself as the regional power and energy bridge between Asia and Europe. But as we noted before, 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.

1 Comment

Filed under Energy, Environment, Trade

China’s Northern Voyagers

China's icebreaker, Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, seen off the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, after completing its first voyage across the Arctic Ocean
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.

3 Comments

Filed under Environment

China’s Arctic Ambition

Shipping Chinese goods to Europe by sea is lengthy, expensive and fraught with danger, not least from pirates. A northern route through the Arctic would lessen all three costs.

Global warming is making that a more practical possibility, at least in the summer months which offer the promise of an ice-free northwestern passage to Europe. A new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says Beijing is looking seriously at the prospects. It has “allocated extra resources to Arctic research and decided to build a new high-tech polar expedition ice-breaker. It also seeks a more active role in the Arctic Council” (of which, as a country without an Arctic coast, it is not a member).

China already owns the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Ukraine-built Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and conducts significant polar scientific research. Its regional push into Africa and the Indian Ocean has met with some resistance, so it is likely to move cautiously in the Arctic. And it has another reason for doing so. Russia, which, with its long Arctic coastline, sees itself as the regional power and energy bridge between Asia and Europe.

1 Comment

Filed under China-Russia, Environment