The Xue Long (Snow Dragon), a Chinese icebreaker that leads research into the rapidly opening Arctic shipping routes
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 28th Feb 12
One morning in 1999, the tiny Canadian village of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean awoke to a surprise. Parked off the coast was a Chinese icebreaker ship, the Xue Long, mocking Ottawa’s pretensions of control over its northern waters. China is not even amongst the eight Arctic countries --- Russia; Finland, Sweden, Norway, the US (Alaska); Iceland, Denmark (Greenland) and Canada itself --- that claim the Arctic’s fabled hydrocarbon reserves, and the rapidly opening Arctic shipping lanes. But Beijing knows that global warming is melting the Arctic ice cap; and it is readying to exploit this, both commercially and militarily.
This growing capability threatens Indian strategy in a war with China. Defence analysts point to India's two-fold strategy: defending the land border in the north with the army and the air force; while using the Indian Navy to block China’s commercial and military shipping in the Indian Ocean. India’s coastal airfields, especially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and its proximity to the choke points of Malacca and Sunda in southeast Asia and the Straits of Hormuz and Aden in West Asia will allow the Indian Navy to impose a strangling economic blockade on China.
But this is not possible if Chinese shipping transits through the Arctic routes, which bypass the Indian Ocean. Today, at an international maritime seminar in New Delhi, Defence Minister AK Antony expressed concern, saying: “The possible melting of the polar ice caps will have tectonic consequences for our understanding of what maritime domains constitute ‘navigable’ oceans of the world. Specific to Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, there may be a need to reassess concepts like chokepoints and critical sea lines of communication (SLOCs).”
Global warming has created the new SLOCs that Antony refers to. Arctic winter temperatures have risen by more than seven degrees over the last six decades. The resulting thinner ice melts easily during summer. In the unusually warm summer of 2007 the Arctic ice cap shrunk by a million square miles. Advanced scientific models presented at the American Geophysical Union in 2007 anticipated an ice-free Arctic summer by 2013.
The melting ice is opening two Arctic sea routes: the Northwest Passage connects the Northern Atlantic, through Canada’s northern islands, with the Northern Pacific Ocean. In Sept 08, the MV Camilla Desgagnes became the first commercial ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, with the crew reporting that it “did not see one cube of ice.” More relevant to China is the Northern Sea Route, which connects the North Atlantic, passing north of Russia, to the North Pacific and then to the South China Sea. This not just bypasses any Indian ambushes in the Indian Ocean but also reduces the distance from northern Europe to Japan by over 40%, from 21,000 kilometres to just 12,000 kilometres.
In a Financial Times article in January 2008, Professor Robert Wade of the London School of Economics revealed that China “has lately displayed special interest in relations with Iceland, the tiny island in the north Atlantic, which with its strategic location is believed to get a key role in future shipping in the region. China wants to start shipping containers in the north, and sees the deep-sea ports of Iceland as potential port bases.”
China is harnessing a global maritime trend. Just as trans-polar routes revolutionized air travel, the melting of Arctic ice caps is revolutionizing commercial shipping. Shipping companies worldwide have already built close to 500 ice-class ships and more are on order.
But China also recognizes the strategic and military advantage of an alternative route for its commercial shipping. Beijing has set up the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, to oversee polar research and expeditions. This maintains an outpost, the Yellow River Station, in Norway’s Spitsbergen Archipelago. It bought the Xue Long, just as it bought its first aircraft carrier, the Varyag, from Ukraine and then spent 31 million Yuan ($5 million) to make it polar-capable. The Xue Long has made four major research trips into the Arctic, the most recent one last year.
With competing claims and counter-claims over waters, the Arctic is seeing a growing military presence. Scott Borgerson revealed in Foreign Affairs magazine that, after the UN rejected Russia’s claim to almost half a million square miles of Arctic waters, “the Kremlin dispatched a nuclear-powered ice-breaker and two submarines to plant its flag on the North Pole’s sea floor. Days later the Russians provocatively ordered strategic bomber flights over the Arctic Ocean for the first time since the Cold War.”