Chinese icebreaker Xue Long. Photo: AFP / Greg Wood

The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long has completed its historic voyage through Canada’s Northwest Passage and is heading towards the Bering Strait near Alaska in China’s first circumnavigation of the Arctic.

The vessel, operated by the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, is conducting scientific research and exploring new shipping routes created by the melting Arctic seas.

Rob Huebert, one of Canada’s top Arctic experts, told Asia Times that the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, is currently doing research work in a region bordering the East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea. It will then presumably move southwards to the Pacific Ocean and its home port of Shanghai.

Huebert, an associate professor and research fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, has been tracking the Xue Long’s progress through satellite imagery.

Shorter East-West route

China’s Xinhua News Agency said the icebreaker finished its transit of the Northwest Passage on September 6.

“It opened up a new sea lane for China,” Xinhua said. “From Shanghai to New York, the traditional route that passes through the Panama Canal is 10,500 nautical miles, while the route that passes through the Northwest Passage is 8,600 nautical miles, which saves 7 days of time.”

The Xue Long also conducted research in marine biology, meteorology and geology, as well as environmental and pollution issues, along the route.

Asia Times first reported that the vessel had entered the Northwest Passage at the end of August. It departed Shanghai on July 20 and sailed north in a journey that took it across Russia’s Northern Sea route and into Scandinavian waters. It then headed westwards through the Davis Strait along the Northwest Passage and into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas near the Arctic Circle.

Chinese shipping companies are showing increasing interest in using the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea route to move cargo on container ships from China to North America and Europe.

Data from Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute shows that the country’s entire Northern Sea Route was virtually ice-free between June and September of this year.

Six Chinese ships reportedly moved cargo between China and Europe this summer using the Northern Sea route.

Ice floes around the Arctic Circle typically recede in the summer months and return during the northern winter. But the ice continues to shrink during both seasonal cycles under the impact of climate change.

Growing Arctic rivalry

The Arctic’s growing commercial importance is spurring competition and security concerns for Arctic littoral countries such as the US, Russia and Canada.

News website Arctic Now reports that the US Senate passed a US$692 billion defense authorization bill on September 18 that included provisions to bolster missile defense systems in Alaska and approval for building up to six Arctic icebreakers. The bill now goes to the House.

Russia reportedly tested new missiles and other weaponry in the Arctic this week as part of large-scale maneuvers in the Baltic and Barents seas.

Canada is also building six armed icebreaking patrol ships at a total cost of C$4.3 billion (US$3.5 billion) to enforce maritime rules and guard its territorial claims in the Far North. The US asserts that the Northwest Passage lies in international waters while Canada holds that it is its sovereign territory.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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