In 2013, China started to launch a global system of transport corridors that should connect China with the entire world – the countries of Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Oceania. Within the Framework of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), it was planned to build roads and railways, open sea and air passages, lay pipelines and power lines. Thus, China decided to involve 4.4 billion people – more than half of the world’s current population – in its orbit of influence through the new geopolitical initiative.
Launching BRI land corridors, the PRC created an additional branches of the project – the “Maritime Silk Road of the XXI century” (MSR) and the “Polar (Arctic) Silk Road”. On March 29, 2014, in Nanyang city (Southeast Asia) was hosted a Symposium of East Asian States, dedicated to building the community of China and the ASEAN countries and implementing the regional “MSR project in the XXI century”, proposed by the Chinese President in October 2013 at the Council of people’s representatives of Indonesia and during the 16th China – ASEAN summitin Brunei.
The initiative to create alternative routes was not proposed by chance, since they all have a clear focus:the main land BRI corridors (“New Eurasian Land Bridge”;“China – Mongolia – Russia Corridor”;“China – Central Asia – West Asia Corridor”;“China – Indochina Peninsula Corridor”;“China – Pakistan Corridor”;“Bangladesh – China – India – Myanmar Corridor” (see Figure 1)) are generally aimed at Central and Western Asia, Central, Eastern and Western Europe, and the “Maritime Silk Road” – to South – East Asia and Africa, “Polar Silk Road”potentially covers northern part of the BRI, connecting China with Europe.Thus, China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy is aimed to improve China’s diplomacy with countries all across the world.BRI blueprint encompasses over 60 countries, which account for 60% of the world’s population and a collective GDP equivalent to 33% of the world’s wealth. It focuses on connectivity and partnerships with neighbouring countries and builds upon existing multilateral mechanisms.
The “MSR”, as well as the land corridors, were planned along an ancient trade route: from Guangzhou in China along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, past to the Red sea (with branchesto the Persian Gulf and Africa), through the Suez canal in the Mediterranean. Before the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the Chinese considered Crimea as a separate entry point to Europe – a deep-water port was planned to be built in the Western part of the Peninsula. In addition, Russia and China discussed another route – the Arctic one: it was mentioned about the possible inclusion of the Northern sea route development project (NSR) into the BRI strategy.
China currently does not have access to the Arctic ocean. Thus, with no physical access to the Arctic, Chinese strategists have long been concerned about the country’s chances of becoming an Arctic power.
In June 2017, the state Committee for development and reform and the State Oceanographic administration of China named the Arctic as one of the directions of the “One belt, One road” project. The “Concept of cooperation at sea within the framework of the BRI”refers to the need to involve Chinese companies in the commercial use of Arctic transport routes.
Soon after Russia has signed a Memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Oceanographic authority, aimed at expanding international cooperation in the field of Arctic and Antarctic researches. The same documents were signed with China by Norway, the United States, Germany, Chile and Argentina.
There are three potential routes across the Arctic: the Northeast passage around Eurasia, the Northwest passage around North America and the Central Arctic ocean route. For China, they offer a shorter and cheaper alternative to current shipping routes, which reach major markets in Europe via the Indian ocean and the Suez canal.
In practice, Yong Sheng, owned by COSCO Shipping, was the first Chinese cargo ship to master the Northern sea route (Northeast passage) in 2013. After a trial voyage, the Chinese carrier COSCO showed interest in further using this project. However, analysts expressed doubts about its profitability. The main problems were that when traveling along the Northern sea route, ships of lower cargo capacity have to be used, the route is seasonal, and the travel conditions are extreme.
In the summer of 2017, another six Chinese vessels took this route. In September, the Chinese research vessel Xue Long made its first Northwest passage voyage along the Northern coast of Canada, reducing the travel time from New – York to Shanghai by seven days compared to the route through the Panama canal.
It should be borne in mind that China’s position is quite convenient in geopolitical terms : it is one of the observer States of the Arctic Council. In total, there are eight countries in the region (Canada, the United States, Denmark, which has access to the Arctic via Greenland, Norway, Russia, Iceland, Sweden and Finland) and 13 other countries that do not have access to the Arctic, but whose using the function of monitoring the relations of the countries in the region. Thus, China is actively using its status with the development of the Arctic programme.
It should be empathized that Beijing’s position on the development of the Arctic route supports the view that both routes contain potentially very profitable transit points that can shorten the path between Asia and Europe, not to mention between Asia and parts of North America.
In January 2018, the state Council of China published the first “White paper on China’s Arctic policy”, which states that Beijing is interested party in Arctic Affairs. It was noted that China intends to create,jointly with other States, the sea trade routes in the Arctic region within the framework of the “Polar Silk Road initiative”. Thus, it was decided that the Polar Silk Road will be part of the broader Chinese “Belt and Road” program, creating sea trade routes and strengthening trade relations with different countries in the region.
Due to the fact that other Trans – Eurasian sea transportations may be extremely unstable in the long term, especially in terms of security, the Chinese authorities have shown interest in the Northern, alternative sea route.
Analyzing the logistics of the existing route through the Suez canal and the Mediterranean sea, even taking into account the planned expansion, it is easy to see that it is already overloaded. Secondly, the middle East is still azone of instabilityand its infrastructure requires large financial investments.
Another potential route, through Central America – the Panama or Nicaraguan canal – is also not entirely rational in terms of reconstruction and big amount of investments. It makes sense to use it for Asian – American trade, which is also planned to be improved in terms of logistics and infrastructure.
Based on this, it can be noted that the two remaining Polar routes have begun to arouse real strategic and long-term interest on the Chinese side(see Figure 2).
The first of these routes is the American Northwest corridor (Northwest passage), first passed by water byRoald Amundsenat the beginning of the last century, but it also retains certain problems. First of all – with Canada, which believes that the Northwest Passage passes through its territorial (internal) waters. The second problem is the US position: the country’s authorities do not want to have a trade highway under the control of such strategic competitor as China.
The second alternative is the Northern sea route, which runs North of the Russian Federation (see Figure 3). Due to China’s increasing interest in developing the logistics of the Northern route, the Russian government has set a high bar for a large-scale Arctic project running along the coast of the new sea route, which is becoming more accessible to navigation as a result of climate warming and ice melting. The head of state outlined a large-scale task: to reach the level of 80 million tons per year by 2025.
In addition to the development of the construction of a new port in Russia’s Arkhangelsk (the capital of the region on the White sea is one of cities in the Far North), construction of a new port and a railway line has begun, which should connect with one of the branches of the Chinese BRI.
Thus, it can be noted that today the Arctic opens up new prospects for trade between Europe and Asia. The North, which has huge reserves of hydrocarbons, is of interest not only to Western countries, but also to China. The use of sea routes and natural resources in the Arctic can have a huge impact on the energy strategy and economic development of China, which is one of the world’s leaders in foreign trade and is the largest consumer of energy in the world. For example, the Northern sea route will allow China to deliver cargo to Europe by sea faster than the 48 days (that it takes on average) to travel from the Northern ports of China to Rotterdam via the Suez canal. Last year, the Russian Arcticgas tanker “Christophe de Margerie” reached South Koreafrom Norway without an icebreaker escort, and the journey took only 15 days.
Thus, the Northern sea route will allow China to deliver cargo to Europe faster by sea, reduce the route by 20 – 30%, and save on fuel and human resources. Given that 90% of Chinese goods are delivered by sea, the development of the Arctic silk road promises Beijing serious savings and profit growth .
In addition to gaining possible economic advantages, China hopes to increase its energy securitythrough Arctic trade routes. Currently, most of the fuel imported by the Asian giant crosses the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Indian ocean with the South China sea.
Thus, it can be traced that China is interested in Arctics Arctic natural resources. This region contains a fifth of the Earth’s natural resources. However, even if this is the case, China’s interest in Arctic underground storerooms is rather long-term and the calculation is made for the remote future. The problem is that China is still dependent on foreign technologies for offshore drilling, even in the warm seas surrounding it. Technologies for extracting natural resources in Arctic waters are much more complex, and China does not have enough sufficient experience in this area.
Also, analysing the logistics of BRI routes, it can be seen why China is getting more interested in developing alternative North corridors :
The transport routes of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” project cross the Eurasian continent in the middle, the route of the “MSR of the XXI century” project runs along the South and there is no Northern water route yet. The main value of the Arctic sea route is that the regions through which it passes are relatively calm and stable. It should be noted that the “Economic Belt” crosses many countries with high conflict and crisis potential (Central Asia, Middle East, East Europe). The “MSR of the XXI century” runs through the South China sea, South – East Asia, and the Indian ocean – the region which has similar problems. Also in terms of infrastructure development these roads may cause certain risks, connected with big number of participants, different level of infrastructure capacities of countries and different legislative obstacles. Thus, the Northern route may act as a more stable alternative that it can become a serious incentive that will contribute to the Eurasian economic integration.
The economic component of Arctic direction of the BRI is no less important. The Chinese expert reminded that the routes through The Northwest passage and the Northern sea route would save Chinese companies time and money on their way to Western countries. Taking into account the melting of ice in the Arctic ocean, the Northern sea route can become an alternative to the main transcontinental route that runs through the southern seas of Eurasia and further to Africa via Suez canal. Thus, the passage of a cargo ship from Shanghai to Hamburg along the North sea route is 2.8 thousand miles shorter than the route through Suez canal.
The modern logistics projects such as “Arctic Silk road” and“MSR of the XXI century” connect China with other countries of South – East Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and some EU countries through sea trade routes, such as such in the Red sea. Thus, it can seen that three new transport corridors will connect Europe with the Russian Federation, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand. Analysing “MSR” logistics it becomes clear that the project is designed to connect three continents into a single transport system: Europe, Asia and Africa. It is no secret that many of these countries have a lot of political differences, but the benefits that the implementation of this large-scale project promises can make them forget about old claims to each other.
One of the long-term prospects for the development of the BRI project is the creation of free trade zones with countries participating in the initiative. The result of such multi-countries collaboration may be the emergence of a large-scale free trade zone from the North – Western provinces of China, Central Asia, to Europe and Africa. About three billion people live on the project’s path. In this case, we are talking about the “mega – market”, and, of course, about the “mega – potential”.