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The cold logic of the Arctic

By Mikhail Zhukov
16 April 2013

The Arctic was at the centre of world's attention in recent years, with the Nordic countries now on a steady, but a serious race for dominance in the region.

Russia should improve the commercial shipping in the Arctic region. Picture: Russian Geographical society

The dominance in this area looks so important that countries usually not associated with polar latitudes like India, Italy, South Korea have got into this race. China, too, shows great interest in these territories - and with a good reason.

About 90% of China's trade is transported by sea, so naturally marine communications play great importance in the politics of the country.

Transporting goods to Europe via the Suez Canal or around Africa takes a long time, is expensive, and there is a risk of piracy.

It is not surprising that China is attracted by the possibility of transportation along the Northern Sea Route.

The Northeast Passage, which goes along the Russian coast, plus another route through the central Arctic waters (which, by the way, is 700 nautical miles shorter), are very convenient for shipping goods.

Take the route from Shanghai to Rotterdam - it is nearly 2,500 nautical miles shorter if the boats go via the polar water than through the Suez Canal; also the cost of insuring ships going through the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal has increased ten times due to piracy. 

Dr Mikhail Zhukov, expert in Arctic Studies and a member of the Environment and Ecology Committee of Russian Chamber of Trade

Take the route from Shanghai to Rotterdam - it is nearly 2,500 nautical miles shorter if the boats go via the polar water than through the Suez Canal. Picture: Russian Geographical Society 

The way through the Arctic waters brings ships immediately on the shelves of Norway and Greenland, where oil production is carried out; China could reach these sites as soon as is possible. This way is convenient for container ships to carry goods to Europe and the east coast of North America.

However, there are difficulties, and the key one is a small period of the summer season (July-September) in waters that most of the year are icebound. That's why China needs Russian experience of navigation in the polar latitudes.

As a non-Arctic country, China faces a lack of experience and technology passing merchant ships through the high latitude water routes. China needs a partner that can help it to develop the potential of the Arctic water ways in a mutually beneficial way - with Russian being the obvious one. 

A number of joint Russian-Chinese projects were launched in recent years; the two countries have an agreement on mining of Arctic mineral resources, as well as their primary processing which involves Chinese investment and technology. But China's interest in our transport corridors is even bigger.

For such an effective economy as is China's, the three month summer in the Arctic is not enough. Even with the weather-warming tendency and further melting of the Arctic, the drifting ice floes still can be a hazard in summer. It is unlikely that this threat will disappear in the foreseeable future. Moreover, underwater currents change the relief of the sea floor, so Arctic mariners need experienced pilots and access to constantly updated hydrographic survey.

Mikhail Zhukov, expert in Arctic Studies and a member of the Environment and Ecology Committee of Russian Chamber of Trade

The Arctic was at the centre of world's attention in recent years, with the Nordic countries now on a steady, but a serious race for dominance in the region. Pictures: Russian Geographical society

China has one icebreaker, and a second is being built in Finland. Both are diesel-electric and able to overcome the ice fields of up to five feet thick. This is not enough for the Northern Sea Route, where even in summer you can meet the band ridges and ice 'plugs' in the narrow parts of the route.

To overcome these obstacles China needs the help of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers, which now allow some Russian companies to use this route almost all year round.

Russia, in turn, is interested in making the Northern Sea Route more profitable and to rebuild the infrastructure that has been used in the Arctic for sometime already, like the ports, repair facilities, rescue units with the appropriate equipment. We've got to keep on development the new projects, too.

Cooperation with China is a good incentive for growth, not to mention the possible benefits.

The main trade interests for China in Russia remain hydrocarbon ore minerals. The biological resources in the Russian Arctic are sold into China only as a supporting item of trade, although there are promising industries - like our indigenous peoples could raise the profitability of local reindeer breeding by selling meat to China. 

The Northern Sea Route is already a promising route, and for the past two years the activity in this waterway has increased dramatically. Russia should improve the commercial shipping in the Arctic and expand its' services and product range - so far the horizons before us are open on this route. 

See Dr Mikhail Zhukov, expert in Arctic Studies and a member of the Environment and Ecology Committee of Russian Chamber of Trade interview in Russian


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