Polar Notes

Oct 2017

Enter the Snow Dragon (again)

On 10 October, after 83 days at sea, the Chinese icebreaker Xuelong (or ‘Snow Dragon’), completed her 8th Arctic expedition since 1999.

During her voyage through the Far North, the Xuelong circumnavigated the Arctic rim for the first time. She began by crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean via the Central Arctic Ocean (passing east of the North Pole), before returning through the Northwest Passage, also for the first time. The Xuelong had already completed an unprecedented voyage through the Northeast Passage as part of China’s 5th Arctic expedition in 2012. The Xuelong is therefore the first vessel to have transited all three Arctic sea lanes.  

This year’s expedition focussed on the scientific investigation of ocean acidification and the spread of microplastics, two issues which are currently attracting much attention internationally. Previous expeditions have sought to gather data on sea-ice thickness, meteorology, and astrophysics, while geophysical and ecosystem surveys, and hydrographic assessments have also been conducted. In addition, scientists onboard the Xuelong have established several short- and long-term observation posts on the Arctic ice cap. In 2003, as part of China’s 2nd Arctic expedition, the ‘Yellow River’ research station was constructed in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard.  

Beijing’s stated objective for China’s Arctic expeditions has been to understand better how the global climate is being affected by environmental changes in the region, and how they are connected to changes in China’s own climate and environment. The opening of the ‘Yellow River’ station coincided with the publication of the ground-breaking Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) as China sought to make faster progress in Arctic research.  

In 2010, following an increase in international attention to the Arctic amid hyperbole about the Arctic’s economic potential and international institutions, Beijing stepped-up the pace of its Arctic expeditions, reportedly because Chinese officials still felt that China was lagging behind other nations in understanding both Arctic and global climatic changes. Beijing had also applied for China to become a permanent Observer to the Arctic Council and was keen to demonstrate China’s ‘Arctic’ science credentials, which also included the announcement of plans to build a second icebreaker indigenously (the Xuelong was purchased from Ukraine in 1993).

China’s scientific activity in the Arctic was ramped up again earlier this year with Chinese officials announcing that the Xuelong would start visiting the Arctic annually to build-up long-term datasets of how the Arctic Ocean is changing, and further establish China as a leading nation on the Arctic stage. It was also announced that China’s new icebreaker – Xuelong 2 – would be completed in 2019.    

That Beijing should want to expand its scientific activities is unsurprising given China’s other interests in the Arctic. China is already building an Arctic observatory in Iceland (the first European country to sign a free trade agreement with China), and is in talks with Canada over building an observatory in the Canadian Arctic. Meanwhile, the state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, or COSCO, has taken the lead in piloting and testing potential Arctic shipping routes. In 2013, the state-owned Silk Road Fund agreed to invest in the first Arctic component of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative (a $5 trillion plan to upgrade trade infrastructure between Asia and Europe) in return for a 9.9% stake in the Russian-led Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project (Chinese companies now have a combined stake in that project of 29.9%). In March 2017, China and Russia announced they were committed to further cooperation, and in June, Beijing published its ‘Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative’, which prioritised the development of an Arctic trade route alongside upgrades to more traditional routes through the Pacific Ocean and Suez Canal.  

With the Xuelong becoming an increasingly regularly feature of the Arctic in summertime, the lack of transparency surrounding China’s Arctic interests and how it foresees the Arctic’s future as part of the ‘One Belt One Road’ Initiative is likely to prompt much speculation in the West about Beijing’s ‘real motives’. However, it would be crude to caricature China’s activity as a threat to peace and security in the Arctic without further evidence of malign intent. The One Belt One Road initiative is a potentially disruptive force with global reach, challenging long-established markets and trade flows. The scale of investment means that the Arctic is unlikely to be isolated from these developments, and it is clearly in China’s interest to understand how the region is changing.  

Furthermore, China also has a legitimate interest in being part of the international scientific conversation about climate change and its implications both at home and overseas, not least because of the onus that has been put on China to show leadership at the UN on the subject (and now in the absence of the United States of course). For the UK’s part, with both countries sharing non-Arctic status, as well as several scientific, commercial, and strategic interests perhaps the opportunity to meet China in the North is one that should be taken seriously.