03 July 18

Maritime polar silk way

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy proposed by the  Chinese government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries, primarily the  People’s Republic of China (PRC), the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road (MSR), since 2013.


Source: Mercator Institute for China Studies

It aims to improve the slowed-down China’s growth and strengthen its leadership role in the world by connecting China to countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere over large infrastructure projects which cover nearly 70 countries.  The Belt and Road Initiative is actually six routes across central Asia and South Asia and one maritime route from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean ending at the Suez Canal.


China strategy for Arctic shipping lanes opened up by global warming

Global warming as a result of human activities after the industrial revolutions seems not only pose threats to the world but also surprisingly leads to some opportunities! As an example, the Arctic has become viable for shipping routes which has a great potential for international transport which is one of the pillars of the globalization. The north-east passage offers China a faster sea route as it would shave almost 20 days off the current time through the Suez Canal route.


Source: Economist


On January 28, 2018, China published the Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative which emphasized on the Arctic as one of the priorities. The Policy states that China is developing to build a “Polar Silk Road” together with Arctic coastal countries, particularly  Russia. It draws a picture about objectives, guiding principles and actions of Chinese participation in Arctic affairs.  The Polar Silk Road is planned to connect with the Eurasian Economic Union.


China’s Polar Silk Road Policy:  Synergy or Conflict?

The Vision declares the future Chinese development goals in Arctic region, including commercial, scientific, environmental preservation, and resource extraction activities along the Chinese Arctic interests with the Belt and Road Initiative. For this purpose, the Chinese companies and enterprises have been encouraged to invest in building infrastructure in the Arctic routes and carry out the commercial voyages to pave the road to form the “Polar Silk Road”. Furthermore, this Chinese strategy paper keeps an eye on the development of gas, oil, mineral resources and other non- fossil energies, the fishing industry and tourism. It gives the guidelines to have joint cooperation with Arctic States, meanwhile respecting their cultures and preserving Arctic natural environment. In other words, it stresses the “peaceful utilization” of the Arctic under multinational treaties such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

China has been acting in the Arctic region over the past decade. An example is its first Arctic research station,  Yellow River, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in 1999, and Chinese icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon) sailed across the Northern Sea route along the Russian coastline in the summer of 2012. Later in 2017, the research vessel Xue Long became the first Chinese ship to navigate the three major Arctic shipping routes: The Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage, and Transpolar Sea Route. The Chinese borders have not extended to the Arctic, to have direct influence in Arctic activities and regional policies. However, China is one of 13 “observers” to the Arctic Council since 2013 after two failed attempts.

The research icebreaker Xue Long – the first Chinese ship to navigate the three major Arctic shipping routes

The Arctic shipping routes, particularly the Northern Sea route, are called “blue economy corridor” due to saving in time and costs for connecting China with Western Europe.   In 2013, Chinese shipping company COSCO sailed the first-ever multipurpose ship through the Northern Sea Route. In 2015,  five COSCO vessels sailed through the icy route, a company record. In 2015, Chinese banks lent $12 billion to the Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which lies in the middle of the Northern Sea Route and is expected to supply China with four million tonnes of LNG a year, according to the state-run China Daily. Furthermore, China building an Arctic cruise ship for ‘Polar Silk Road which is its first polar expedition cruise ship expected to be completed by August 2019.

China cannot physically claim Arctic territory, but it can buy stakes and influence the energy, commercial, and geopolitical benefits.

First, the region estimated to account for energy natural resources of approximately 13 and 30 per cent of the world’s undiscovered crude oil and natural gas accordingly.  Second, is the attraction of shipping routes as the two paths of Northwest Passage (NWP) and Northeast Passage (NEP), as the introduce quicker substitutes to connect both European and North American energy and goods to China. A third Arctic passage, the Transpolar Sea Route, cuts through the Arctic between the NWP and NEP through international waters but can only be accessed by the heaviest icebreaker ships. See the below figure.


Source: Arctic Council

TThe third benefit comes from enhanced security in shipping. The ability to transport goods and materials through Arctic waters provides an alternative trade lane that replaces as an alternative to the maritime choke point at the Strait of Malacca, as well as other pirate-infested waters in Ithe Indian Ocean and Rthe ed Sea. Lastly, China can strengthen its geopolitical and geo-economics posture by more active commercial and energy presence in the Arctic.

Challenges and conflicts of the Chinese Arctic Initiative

China claims to have the right to sail the Polar route under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which clearly allows freedom of navigation in international waterways. However, it is really ironic, as China   rejected the international Permanent Court of Arbitration  statement about China violating the UNCLOS in the South China Sea.

China’s increasing activities and dominance in the Arctic region has raised the concerns of Arctic coastal states over its long-term strategic goals, as well as possible military deployment. In addition, it has caused some environmental concerns. As the Arctic is a very environmentally sensitive region, any projects backed by foreign states need to guarantee the protection of the Arctic environment. It is therefore important to examine the BRI in Athe rctic from an environmental perspective. China specifically promised the Arctic Council to protect the environment, protect the ecosystem, and address climate change.

Furthermore, the Arctic Council  argues  the requirements of shipping in the region such as lack of communications, charts, sufficient search and  rescue (SAR) response, and also  environmental response to events such as oil pollution from tankers. On the other side    China has asked contribution to Arctic affairs like conducting scientific surveys on navigational routes, establishing land-based stations, execution of research on climatic and environmental changes in the Arctic and to increase cooperation with coastal states in clean energy.

Russia is partly keen for Chinese investment in its infrastructure because capital from the West has  dried up. However, some Russians politicians consider the China’s plans more suspiciously. They concern that that the Chinese government does not believe that Russia should exercise full control over shipping along the Northern Sea Route. China does not show interest in challenging Russian jurisdiction in the Northern Sea route and is willing to follow Russian law. Further, Chinese vessels are generally responsible and are not known to cause environmental disasters. The BRI, therefore, seems to be in perfect synergy with China’s Arctic Policy when it comes to Arctic shipping.

 Author: Reza Karimpour

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