The Xue Long icebreaker made made China's first circumnavigation of the Arctic in 2017. Photo: Bahnfrend

The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, has entered the Northwest Passage in Canada’s Far North and is expected to navigate the fabled shipping route linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by September.

The research vessel, operated by the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration is on the last leg of an unprecedented circumnavigation of the Arctic from Asia that took it across Russia’s Northern Sea Route into Scandinavian waters before heading to Canada. Analysts say one of its chief purposes is to test the feasibility of moving cargo on container ships across the melting Arctic seas from China to North America and Europe.

“(The Xue Long) is currently in the Davis Strait and should be moving up into the Lancaster Sound, looking at how fast they’re going … probably in the next day or so,” Rob Huebert, one of Canada’s top Arctic experts told Asia Times. “It’s capable of taking the northern route right through.” The ship’s progress might be delayed if it stops to do scientific work, he added.

Huebert is tracking the ship’s progress via satellite imagery. The Xue Long reportedly carries 96 crew members, including Arctic and oceanographic staff. It is the first time that a Chinese ship has circumnavigated the Arctic.

The Arctic mission is China’s way of making a geopolitical statement, according to Huebert. “They are showing that they can do it,” he said. “You do not see any other scientific vessel doing a route around the North Pole. Nobody else does the circle.”

Huebert, an associate professor and research fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, pointed out that nations typically conduct Arctic research in specialized locations. “So the idea that (China) would be doing science as a byproduct is a highly unusual practice for any Arctic research vessel.”

“They are showing that they can do it. You do not see any other scientific vessel doing a route around the North Pole. Nobody else does the circle”

Xinhua News Agency reported before the Xue Long’s departure from Shanghai on July 20 that its research focuses on marine biology, meteorology, geology and environmental issues such as ocean acidification and plastic pollution in the Arctic.

The Xue Long’s circumnavigation of the Arctic is expected to take 83 days. It is the ship’s eighth Arctic mission.

The ship is taking the same route as British Navy Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1846 expedition to discover a sea route to the Orient. That attempt led to the loss of two ships and 129 men when they became trapped in the Arctic ice. But global warming this year is causing ice floes to reach historic lows, allowing ships to make a journey that would have been impossible 100 years ago.

The sea route from Asia to Europe via northern Russia is more than 40% shorter than taking the traditional journey across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal. Analysts say Russia’s northern route, at this point, tends to have far less ice than the Northwest Passage during the summer months.

The independent Barents Observer says the Xue Long conducted research off Norway’s coast in mid-August.

The Xue Long is a Ukrainian-built icebreaker that was purchased by China in 1993. It is China’s only civilian icebreaker, although another domestically-built vessel is due to be operational in 2019. China’s military operates icebreakers in the Bohai Sea. The country has plans to develop nuclear-powered icebreakers.

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