Arctic Ambitions: China’s Engagement With the Northern Sea Route



Tiago Tecelão Martins | The Diplomat

Despite the potential adverse effects of climate change, it is undeniable that these changes have significantly contributed to the growing interest of countries such as China in the Arctic region, with a particular focus on the maritime transport of resources extracted from the world’s high north. The Northern Sea Route, which some analysts expect to be “ice-free by 2050,” has received special attention from both China and Russia in recent years.

After completing a voyage between Vladivostok and Kaliningrad, Ivan Fedyushin, second officer aboard a sailing vessel, reported a striking observation: the previously prevalent ice fields across the Bering Sea, Chukotka Sea, and East Siberian Sea had disappeared. This vanishing ice serves as a significant indication of a profound change in the Arctic’s accessibility for all types of vessels. The melting Arctic ice offers major powers a key benefit: greater navigational access. This expansion not only extends the available months for using Arctic maritime routes to transport resources but also boosts the potential volume of cargo transported. A study supported by the Russian Science Foundation, employing satellite data and climate models, projected that the Northern Sea Route’s transit window will expand by approximately 4 to 6.5 months by the close of the 21st century.

The Northern Sea Route (NSR), connecting the Baltic Sea to the Bering Sea through Russia’s extensive Arctic, is known for providing faster navigation during ice-free periods, drawing the interest of various global players. A trip from Dalian, China, to Rotterdam, the Netherland along the NSR takes around 33 days, as opposed to the 48 days via the Suez Canal. The potential savings, in both time and money, explains why China and other nations are closely observing the Arctic and its potential for global shipping. 

Understanding Northern Sea Route’s growing utilization means acknowledging the significant role played by Russia and China as policymakers in the region. After a Russian decree in 2015 approving the Route’s development until 2030, the Northern Sea Route saw a notable increase in the sea transport volume, rising by approximately 9 million tons between 2017 and 2018. 

China’s growing involvement in the NSR is evidenced by its 2018 Arctic White Paper and the 14th Five-Year Plan, emphasizing China’s dedication to polar region collaboration. China’s interest is branded as the “Polar Silk Road,” the component of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Arctic. It aims to establish new sea routes through the Arctic Ocean, tapping into the region’s potential for global trade connectivity and promoting Arctic exploration. Russia has welcomed this interest, with President Vladimir Putin saying in 2017 that “the Silk Road has reached the North.” Putin added that Russia would combine the Northern Sea Route with Chinese projects. In 2019, a team of Chinese researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Fuzhou University conducted a study to understand which Russian ports had the highest potential for enabling Chinese access to the strategic Northern Sea Route.

It is therefore not surprising that this partnership would bear some fruits. From 2019 – the year after China’s Arctic White Paper was released – onward, the number of transits of the Northern Sea Route have grown, rising from 27 in 2018 to 37 in 2019, and further spiking to 62 in 2020. In a related development, the Northern Sea Route Information Office reported an eightfold surge in traffic volume over the last six years, escalating from roughly 18 million tons transported via ships in 2018 to over 30 million tons in 2021. 

NSR: The Chinese Alternative for Maritime Shipping

It is important to highlight that about 90 percent of Chinese products are transported by sea. The Chinese State Oceanic Administration, has proclaimed the 21st century as the “century of the oceans,” recognizing the importance of maritime routes on their strategy for development. China-Europe maritime trade is three times greater than air trade. In this context, the Northern Sea Route is seen as a viable alternative to some problems arising from the traditional maritime routes like the Suez Canal or the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.

The Chinese strategic maneuver to diversify its oil and natural gas supply routes, aiming to alleviate the strategic vulnerability famously known as the “Malacca dilemma,” led it to see the Arctic shipping potential as essential. The Malacca dilemma, a term coined by President Hu Jintao in 2003, signifies China’s vulnerability to a naval blockade due to limited alternative routes and the potential for control by external powers, particularly the United States. Overreliance on the Strait of Malacca presents a major obstacle for China’s trade networks, since the narrowness of the strait, coupled with the increasing piracy risks in the area, severely limits and endangers China’s crucial trade paths. Despite everything, China remains highly dependent on this strait, through which approximately 6.5 million barrels of oil destined for China pass each year.

However, challenges for China extend beyond just the Strait of Malacca. Both in the Suez Canal and in its own waters, China is well aware of looming issues. The Suez Canal is experiencing growing congestion year after year, and the South China Sea is becoming more appealing for pirate attacks, casting uncertainty on the stability of navigation and the import and export of goods.

China’s Role in Enhancing Arctic Connectivity and Trade

Therefore, China’s engagement in Arctic affairs is motivated by its pursuit of new energy sources and more stable and faster maritime routes to transport those resources. The collaborative initiatives between China and Russia in the Arctic have led to COSCO, a prominent Chinese shipping company, being involved in approximately 30 percent of voyages along the Northern Sea Route. In 2021, a total of 26 ship voyages to China via the Northern Sea Route were recorded, with COSCO operating 14 of them. 

In an effort to assess the impact of adopting the Northern Sea Route, COSCO sponsored a study that unveiled significant savings: 14 voyages on this route resulted in a total reduction of 220 days in transportation time, savings of 6,948 tons of fuel, and cost reductions totaling $9.36 million compared to traditional routes. The Northern Sea Route not only bypasses the obstacles of the Suez Canal but also provides a safer passage, effectively sidestepping the problems found in the South China Sea. Also, it offers China a way faster route to transport goods to and from Europe. 

The NSR is especially attractive for shipping goods between China and Russia. Annual trade between Russia and China has increased since 2012 from less than $90 billion to more than $190 billion in 2022. Much of this trade involves energy supplies from Russia to China. In October 2023, the number of oil shipments to China along the Russian coast showed a 23 percent increase compared to the previous year, reaching 400,000 barrels per day this year. According to the Federal Customs Service, while only one dry bulk carrier, carrying a 35,000-ton cargo of coking coal, departed from Sabetta at the close of 2022, three ships loaded with a total of 117,000 tonnes of this commodity were cleared this October. 

Efforts to further develop the NSR are underway. China Communications Construction and China Railway Construction have been discussing the extraction of raw materials in Russia’s Komi Republic, including the potential construction of a new railroad and a deep-water port for loading ships for transportation along the Northern Sea Route. 

China and other partners also aim to construct a fiber optic cable spanning approximately “10,500 kilometers along the Arctic Circle.” This project would not only improve connectivity but also boost navigation safety in the region by increasing data transmission. Huawei is helping build part of the infrastructure to make communication faster and more efficient between ships, and between ships and the coast.

In October 2023, at the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Putin invited other countries to contribute to  the development of the Northern Sea Route, and the development of deep-sea terminals on the eastern section of the Northern Sea Route. But what was most remarkable about Putin’s speech was his belief that “starting next year navigation for ice class cargo ships throughout the Northern sea route will become year-round.” If true, this would increase China’s interest in this maritime route, likely resulting in even more aid to the construction of high-class or nuclear icebreakers in order to reach this goal. 

The Northern Sea Route, due to climate change and icebreakers, is becoming more and more attractive, increasing its importance on a global scale. The role of China in the development of the NSR is connected to its ambitions of diversifying maritime shipping routes, its need for new energy resources (while competing with the West), and the quest for faster and safer navigation.

Tiago Tecelão Martins holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in International Studies, both from ISCTE–Instituto Universitário de Lisboa. He researches evolving power dynamics between major players like China and the United States, with a particular emphasis on the Arctic.

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