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China breaks the ice on northern sea route

Look out, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. A new chapter in maritime history is being written.

Last week, the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long anchored in the Icelandic harbor of Skarfabakki after covering the 15,000km distance from Qingdao harbor in six weeks.

The brick-colored Xue Long or Snow Dragon is the largest icebreaker in the world that does not run on nuclear power. Nearly 170m from tip to tail, it is 23m wide and can sail through 1.1m of ice at a steady speed of 1.5 knots.

The journey, traversing the East Siberian Sea and the Barents Sea, would have been shorter by more than a fortnight had the ship not made frequent stops for the scientists on board to gather marine and meteorological data.

So, what’s the story?

Well, the Xue Long is the first Chinese ship to traverse the northern sea route (NSR), opening up an Arctic passage for the world’s No. 2 economy, and Asia’s biggest, to reach Europe, avoiding the traditional journey through the Malacca Strait and around Sri Lanka’s southern tip, known as the Suez Canal route.

Melting ice in the frigid Arctic, an area stuffed with natural resources, is opening up new possibilities to cut the sea route to Europe by as much as 40 percent. Data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite suggests that 900 cubic km of sea ice had melted during the past year, much more than previous credible estimates.

Winter temperatures today are said to be 12.7 deg C warmer than in the three decades to 1990. Already, Arctic tourism is booming. According to some estimates, the passage may be fully open year-round as early as 2030, given the current pace of ice melt.

Seymour Laxon of University College, London, where the European satellite data is being processed, recently told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the iconic moment may come “very soon” when, one day in the summer, we will look at satellite imagery of the Arctic and see no ice, just open water.

Merchant mariners are already preparing for the day. The number of merchant ships that have used the route rose nine times last year from 2010’s four vessels. That figure is poised to escalate as the maritime industry turns to nuclear-powered icebreakers, more powerful and quicker than the Ukraine-built Xue Long. Each of them would be capable of going through 3m-thick ice like a hot knife through butter.

China, no slouch when it comes to seizing strategic opportunities, is right there and ready.

In April, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iceland and Sweden ― both Arctic Council members. Economic opportunities aside, gripped by a growing sense of siege thanks to the American “pivot” to Asia, China sees the NSR also as a potential safety valve.

Its leaders have made no fewer than seven trips to Arctic nations since 2009, signing multiple agreements, including a “strategic partnership” with Denmark. And it has ordered a second icebreaker ship.

For all those reasons, the Xue Long’s passage is poised to bring more big power attention to the area.

In Moscow, no less than President Vladimir Putin has been monitoring the Arctic in recent months.

Putin knows the area could hold the key to future Russian prosperity. Russian Arctic defence strategy, now centred on the city of Murmansk, home to its Northern Fleet, is being recalibrated to the defence of the entire NSR and will probably move in tandem with the location and exploitation of natural gas and oil reserves along the Arctic Ocean’s continental shelf.

“We will be setting up a network of support bases along the entire northern sea route where Emergency Ministry officers will be deployed to respond promptly and efficiently to any unexpected developments,” Putin recently told RIA Novosti news agency.

The United States, which operates a military base in Thule, Greenland, is watching too.

“We are confronted by a new ocean for the first time in 500 years,” Rear-Admiral David Titley of the U.S. Navy was quoted as saying recently.

It may be time for world leaders to make sure that the area does not become another flashpoint of tension.

Next month, as the United Nations General Assembly meets for its annual session, one proposal on the table ― backed by Greenpeace ― is for the Arctic to be declared a nature reserve.

At some future date, there may be moves to declare the Arctic a demilitarized zone, in much the same way that the Antarctic is classified now.

The opening of the NSR will have an impact on Asia’s trade patterns and logistics arrangements in the APEC zone. Three of Asia’s four biggest economies ― China, Japan and South Korea ― could find much use for the passage.

A year ago, the Suezmax tanker Vladimir Tikhonov ― 11/2 times the size of a U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier ― became the largest vessel to move through the NSR. Denmark-based Nordic Bulk Carriers, which owns ships with some of the heaviest hulls in the world, plans to make up to eight voyages through the NSR this year, shipping ore to China from Murmansk.

Rather than the usual 43 days taken through the Suez Canal route, the NSR will cut the journey to just 23 days for Nordic Bulk. Aside from the time saved ― the route could cut as much as $400,000 to $800,000 per trip in fuel and manpower costs, depending on the size of the vessel and the port it sails from.

PSA Corp. declined to comment but it is a safe bet that, two decades from now, perhaps sooner, the long-term calculations of ports like Singapore and Hambantota, near Sri Lanka’s southern tip where ships turn northward towards the Suez Canal, will need to take in this reality.

To be sure, it will be a while before the ships, the navigation systems and the emergency support services are developed enough for sea captains to feel secure about guiding their vessels into the stormiest waters known to man, an area cloaked in darkness for six months of the year.

But two or three decades ― the time estimated for the Arctic to be ice-free ― is but a blink of an eye in the history of man.

By Ravi Velloor

Ravi Velloor is foreign editor at The Straits Times in Singapore. ― Ed.

(The Straits Times)
(Asia News Network)