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China starts commercial use of Northern Sea Route

The icebreaker Snow Dragon was the first Chinese vessel to sail the Northern Sea Route. (Photo: Sinoshipnews.com)

A Chinese shipping firm is planning the country’s first commercial voyage through the Northern Sea Route this summer. By 2020 as much as 15 percent of the country’s international trade can be shipped through the Arctic.

Location

With melting icecaps accelerating the opening of new shipping routes and the exploration of oil, gas and mineral deposits in the Arctic, China has been eager to gain a foothold in the region. 

In 2012 the icebreaker “Xue Long” (Snow Dragon) became the first Chinese vessel to sail all along the Northern Sea Route into the Barents Sea and upon return sailing a straight line from Iceland to the Bering Strait via the North Pole.

This trip has “greatly encouraged” Chinese shipping companies, says Huigen Yang, director general of the Polar Research Institute of China, according to South China Morning Post.

For China, the world’s No 2 economy after the United States, the route would save time and money. The distance from Shanghai to Hamburg is 5,200 kilometers shorter via the Arctic than via the Suez Canal, Yang said.

China has been lobbying for permanent observer status on the eight-member Arctic Council in a bid to gain influence. 

According to Chinese longer-term scenarios, 5 to 15 per cent of China’s international trade, mostly container traffic, would use the route by 2020. Ten per cent of China’s projected trade by 2020, for instance, would be worth €526 billion. “If the route is constructively prepared … then the demand is there, it could be a huge number,” Huigen Yang said at a conference about the Arctic in Oslo, organized by The Economist magazine.

As BarentsObserver reported, in 2012 46 vessels sailed the Northern Sea Route, compared to 34 in 2011 and only four in 2010. The total cargo transported on the NSR in 2012 was 1 261 545 tons – a 53 percent increase from 2011, when 820 789 tons was shipped on the route.