In a report to Congress published in May this year, the DoD says China has increased activities and engagement in the Arctic region since gaining observer status on the Arctic Council in 2013. The council consists of the eight Arctic States: Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.
The report says China’s new Arctic strategy includes presumptive access to natural resources, securing Arctic sea lines of communication, and promoting an image of a “responsible major country” in Arctic affairs. The strategy also highlights China’s icebreaker vessels and research stations as integral to its implementation.
China maintains research stations in Iceland and Norway and operates one Ukrainian-built icebreaking research vessel, the Xuelong, which in 2017 completed its 8th Arctic expedition and became the first Chinese official vessel to traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage.
In 2016 China commissioned the first of a new series of “ice-capable” patrol boats and in September 2018 the Xuelong completed its 9th Arctic expedition. In July this year, China entered into service its second icebreaking research vessel the Xuelong 2.
Designed jointly by Finland’s Aker Arctic Technology in Helsinki and China’s Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, construction began at Jiangnan Shipyard Group in December 2016.
The vessel can break through ice 1.5 meters thick, compared to the original Xuelong’s maximum of 1.2 meters, and is the first polar research vessel that can do it while moving forwards or backwards.
Arctic border countries have raised concerns about China’s expanding capabilities and interest in the region, says the DoD, with Denmark’s government publicly expressing concern about China’s interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station in Greenland, establish a satellite ground station, renovate airports, and expand mining.
Last September the Russian Federation announced it was strongly opposed to foreign icebreakers operating on the Northern Sea Route, whether they were Chinese or US.
However, warns the DoD, “Outside potential friction over the Northern Sea Route, the Arctic region is an area of opportunity for Sino-Russian commercial cooperation, in addition to energy development and infrastructure projects such as the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project.”
Last month Denmark’s A.P. Møller-Maersk Group and the Russian ministry of Transport signed an MoU to launch the blockchain-based TradeLens platform, jointly developed by Maersk and IBM, with the inclusion of the Port of St. Petersburg as part of the pilot. According to TradeLens CEO Mike White, the move into Russia aims to “significantly facilitate the interaction between shippers and various regulatory and administrative bodies in the country, ultimately increasing the speed of cargo clearance and movement of goods across borders”.
In September last year Maersk conducted its first test of the Northern Sea Route by sending its 3,600 TEU ice-breaker class Venta Maersk from Vladivostok via Busan, South Korea to St. Petersburg.