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Arctic ice route is China’s new Maritime Silk Road to Europe

The specially-constructed Tian'en cargo vessel left China's Jiangsu province for Europe via the Bering Strait and the Arctic Circle


Chinese state media have been hyping a new “Maritime Silk Road” that runs through melting ice in the Arctic Circle to European ports including Russia’s St Petersburg in the Baltic Sea.

This week, a Chinese cargo ship specially designed and built to plow through ice, successfully left Arctic Circle waters on Saturday and headed for Europe.

The Tian’en, constructed by the state-owned shipping juggernaut China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company’s Specialized Carriers Co., is now leaving the Norwegian Sea. It is en route to the French port of Rouen, where it is expected to call as soon as this Wednesday, according to Xinhua.

The ship cast off from Lianyungang in east China’s Jiangsu province on August 4 and her maiden voyage through the Arctic’s Northeast Passage began after it crossed the Bering Strait on August 17, a waterway dubbed the “Polar Silk Road.”

The 36,000-ton Tian’en as seen at her home port of Lianyungang. Photo: Xinhua

The Tian’en sailing through icy waters in the Arctic Circle. Photo: Xinhua

The Tian’en‘s route from China’s Lianyungang to Rouen in France, via the Arctic Circle. Photo: Handout

“It is the shortest route linking northeast Asia and northern Europe,” Captain Chen Xiangwu told Xinhua.

He added that all waste produced would be sorted and handled onboard to minimize pollution.

Shipping shortcuts from China’s major container ports to Europe via the Arctic Circle can reduce trip times by up to 12 days compared with traditional routes via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal. This can lead to savings of up to 300 tons of fuel, according to COSCO.

Yet the Arctic Circle route presents obvious challenges such as icebergs and pack ice, and when the Tian’en sailed through heavy swells, the use of elevators on the 36,000-ton vessel was suspended for safety reasons.

In a white paper expounding its Arctic policy earlier this year, Beijing stated its hopes for merchant ships and even tankers to ply new routes via the Arctic Circle to advance its Belt and Road initiative.

The warming Arctic climate and summer shrinkage of the sea areas enclosed by pack ice has attracted the attention of many countries, including China and the United States, who hope to harness and make more commercially viable new routes near the top of the world.


There have also been reports about Chinese travel agencies organizing journeys to the North Pole by air – landing by helicopter or on a runway prepared on the ice – or traveling aboar an icebreaker.


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