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Chinese commercial ships explore Arctic routes amid ‘Polar Silk Road’ ambitions

By Zhang Yiqian in Guangzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/8 18:43:16


China’s Arctic policy white paper thrills enterprises wanting to participate in development

○ China in January published its first white paper on Arctic policy, declaring to establish a Polar Silk Road that can develop new shipping routes

○ In 2013, China's first commercial boat sailed through the Arctic route, from China to the Netherlands

○ Even though the usage of the route is still limited, China hopes it can become more regulated and frequented in the future

Yongsheng sails along the northeast Arctic route. Photo: Courtesy of Cosco Shipping Specialized Carriers Limited

When Han Guomin, CEO of China's Cosco Shipping Specialized Carriers Limited, read the white paper released on January 26 about China's Arctic policy, he and his colleagues were excited.

The white paper is China's first policy on the Arctic, in which China said it hopes to build a "Polar Silk Road" with the development of Arctic shipping routes, and that China's will maintain peace, stability and sustainability of the North Pole.

"We felt proud that we had contributed to the shipping route," Han told the Global Times. Five years before the policy came out, Cosco Shipping, based in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, had already begun sending ships through the route.

Chinese enterprises are encouraged to participate in infrastructure development for these routes and conduct commercial trial voyages in line with international law for their commercial operations.

Currently there are two routes through the Arctic, the Northwest Trail, which runs along the Canadian coast, and the Northeast Trail through Siberia, which is also the shortest route connecting northeast Asia and western Europe.

In 1997, Finland's ship UIKKU traveled through the northeast route to Asia. In 2013, when the first Chinese commercial ship sailed through the same route, a total of 71 ships globally also sailed. 

In the past, the Xuelong research icebreaker traveled both routes for scientific expeditions. Among China's many commercial ships, Cosco Shipping is the only company that has sent ships through the Arctic route.

In 2013, its Yongsheng made the first voyage; to date, Cosco Shipping has sent a total of 10 boats carrying out 14 trips. The experience of these ships demonstrates China's blueprint for developing the Arctic. 

Eying the Arctic

Cosco Shipping first started eying the Arctic route out of commercial interest. There are important oil and gas projects in the Arctic circle, such as Russia's Vamal LNG project, and any ships hoping to participate must have related experience.

From a shipping point of view the Arctic route also has more advantages. Normally, there are three main routes connecting the Asia Pacific and Europe, which run through the Suez Cannel, Panama Cannel and the Cape of Good Hope respectively. 

But sailing through the northeast route of the Arctic only takes about 20 days one way, saving a third of the time, distance and fuel, as well as a reduction in harmful emissions, such as carbon dioxide and other carbon footprints. Furthermore, this route is far safer, as it avoids the monsoons of the Indian Ocean as well as the possibility of pirates. 

Clients also prefer the Arctic route. Presently, foreign commercial ships on the northeast route mostly transport crude oil, gas and minerals, while China's ships mostly transfer machinery, agricultural products and paper pulp, all of which are easily damaged and require high standards of transportation. The calmer route better suits clients' needs. 

Even though the Arctic route is considered "golden" compared to others, it also comes with its own unique challenges, such as icebergs. When traveling on the route, the ships usually pay Russia's State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom for icebreaker ships and guiding services. 

This route requires the steel plating on the ships to be able to withstand an impact from half-meter-thick drifting ice. The ship's sealant needs to stand the test of extreme cold, and its lubricant and gas should be able to run in low temperatures.

Han Guomin meets with the crew of Tianle in 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Cosco Shipping Specialized Carriers Limited

Polaris and icebergs 

In order to prepare for the initial voyage, Cosco Shipping held special training and information gathering sessions for its employees. 

According to Cosco Shipping's training manuals provided to the Global Times, the company spent several months gathering information about the northeast route, the ocean and relevant regulations. 

The company chose the Yongsheng to carry out the first voyage. The boat is one of the few in China that qualify as Russia's Arc4 level (there are 9 levels, 4 being the highest among commercial ships). 

The Yongsheng was specially altered to suit the Arctic. Pipes were changed and a small electric boiler was added for extreme weather. As for environmental concerns, the ship was added with a storage unit to hold hundreds of tons of waste, so that none will leak out into the Arctic Ocean. 

Because of the high latitude of the route, the boats could not use regular communication measures such as satellite phones or long-wave radio. They can only rely on iridium phones. Furthermore, when sailing along the Arctic route, there are usually no other boats around, so staff are required to overcome loneliness. After entering the Arctic circle, there will also be polar days (round-the-clock sunshine), which can disturb one's perception.

Symbolic victory

On August 15, 2013, Yongsheng departed the Taicang harbor in East China's Jiangsu Province and set sail for Rotterdam, the Netherlands. 

Photos and video taken by staff show sailing on the Arctic meant often seeing icebergs, Polaris and sun showers. But there were also many unexpected difficulties.

During the first voyage, Yongsheng encountered dark gray icebergs standing about 5 meters above water, spanning hundreds of nautical miles. After the icebreaker sailed through, the route was covered by ice. Yongsheng had to push through the ice, which constantly hit against its steel exterior. 

Zhang Yutian, captain of Yongsheng, spent 13 straight hours observing the route with his binoculars and guiding the boat through the ice.

In 2015, the Yongsheng also met thick fog that lasted 30 hours, reducing visibility to just 0.4 nautical miles. During this time, Cosco Shipping's support group also watched the boat's every move on the sea chart, sending trail updates and weather and ice forecasts. 

Han told the Global Times that he felt the success of Yongsheng's first voyage was a symbolic one. "If we didn't succeed, the others probably wouldn't try and the industry's usage of the northeast route would be much less, and much later," he said. 

Connecting continents 

Experts who have analyzed the white paper say that great importance will be placed on navigation security. China has actively conducted studies of these routes and continuously strengthened its hydrographic surveys to improve navigation, security and logistical capacities in the Arctic.

China is also eying the development of oil, gas and mineral resources and other non-fossil energies, fishing and tourism in the region, jointly with Arctic states. In doing so, it will respect the traditions and cultures of Arctic residents, including indigenous people, and strive to conserve the natural environment, Xinhua News Agency reported.

The white paper could also help dispel the "China threat in the Arctic area" theory and enhance mutual trust between China and Arctic countries, Ding Huang, an expert on polar research from Wuhan University, told the Global Times previously.

"China cannot be absent from Arctic affairs since it is geographically located near the area, and any changes, including climate and environmental changes, will affect China," Ding said.

"And as an influential member of the international community, China has a responsibility to deal with Arctic affairs," he noted.

"With the Arctic route being incorporated into the Belt and Road initiative, we as participants are all excited. With government policies, the usage of the route will be more regulated, convenient and have more support," Han told the Global Times. 

In the future, Cosco Shipping will cooperate with other countries. This week it is holding a promotional meeting in Tokyo. The general manager of the company's marketing center told the Global Times that the company is cooperating with Hokkaido University in a project to transport Japanese vegetables and seafood through the northeast route to northwest Europe.

Cosco Shipping will also be promoted in Moscow and Oslo this year in order to collect clients' needs and arrange a summer shipping schedule. 

Currently, the Arctic route still needs improvement, the manager said. First, information about the water and meteorology are deficient. And there are limited rescue measures within 3,000 nautical miles of Siberia's Bering Strait, the manager said.

He hopes that, in the future, through the development of the northeast route, there will be more ships and more ports along the coast. 

Newspaper headline: Sailing northward


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