In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious effort to promote regional cooperation and connectivity on a trans-continental scale via infrastructure-building projects covering Eurasia, various oceans, and parts of Africa.
In early 2018, the Chinese government released “China’s Arctic Policy,” a white paper outlining how the BRI will construct infrastructure projects along Arctic routes, and urged its largest shipping companies to conduct trial voyages through the frigid waters. The report emphasized that China has “shared interests” with Arctic countries.
China launched its first domestically built icebreaker named Xue Long 2 (雪龙2), which translates to “Snow Dragon,” in a ceremony at the Jiangnan Shipyard on Monday. Arctic Today News said the new icebreaker would support China's first official Arctic policy, in which Beijing placed "special emphasis" on sea routes in the Arctic Ocean.
The new icebreaker, operated by the civilian Polar Research Institute of China, was co-developed with Finnish ship-building professionals Aker Arctic and laid down at the end of 2016. Designs were finalized by the Chinese Marine Design and Research Institute in Shanghai, and the vessel was completed in just over two years.
As China increases icebreaker capacity, Arctic Today News notes that the US is falling behind. China has two operational icebreakers that now equals the total capacity of the US Coast Guard. Currently, the US operates a single modern icebreaker, the USCGC Healy. The future of the US's second polar-class icebreaker, the four-decade-old USCGC Polar Star, with an expected decommission year of 2023, suffered a catastrophic engine failure and engine room flooding earlier this year.
It remains a mystery when the US will be able to procure new icebreakers, as the "Icebreaker Gap" between China widens.
“The U.S. Government Accountability Office has questioned the ability of the U.S. to meet Congress’s requests for new icebreakers,” explains Andrew Holland, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate American Security Project.
“At a time when our main geopolitical competitors are investing in new icebreakers to take advantage of the melting Arctic, it is very dangerous that the U.S. refuses to spend the resources necessary to secure its place in the future Arctic. If the U.S. isn’t at the table as the Arctic regime is being decided, then American interests won’t be represented by the outcomes.”
The Xue Long 2 is expected to enter service in 2019. Arctic Today News says the vessel's interior and electronic systems will be installed in the fourth quarter. China is full steam ahead in the Arctic, the new generation of icebreakers is capable of breaking through ice up to 3 meters thick.
China’s increasing political engagement in the Arctic region was seen earlier this week when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson expanded Arctic cooperation between the two countries ahead of Iceland assuming the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2019.
China seeks to become a power player in the Arctic. Beijing has also recognized that Greenland is the answer to faster shipping routes and access to mineral deposits to further the BRI. There is lots of chatter that a state-owned Chinese company could solidify a bid in the coming months to build massive infrastructure projects in the Arctic country. This has worried the European Union and Washington because a strategic US Air Force Base is located in the northern part of the country.
As China builds the “Polar Silk Road” and integrates the region into its BRI, in the last several years the country's largest shipping companies have already been reaping the rewards of the new maritime route through the Arctic Ocean sending dozens of vessels along Russia’s Northern Sea. To be sure, Beijing's new Arctic route will take an immense amount of "icebreaking" to keep the shipping channels open, however, to Beijing it will all be worth it as the “Polar Silk Road” completely bypasses Washington's choke points in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Reuters Video: China’s first domestically-built icebreaker launched