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China’s icebreaker, the Xue Long, has touched Canadian waters at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. (Pei Xin/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
China’s icebreaker, the Xue Long, has touched Canadian waters at Tuktoyaktuk, NWT. (Pei Xin/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The North

For China, north is a new way to go west Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada’s last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

China is not an Arctic country. Its northernmost point on the Russian border – a settlement called Mohe that is nicknamed “China’s north pole” – is well shy of the Arctic Circle.

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Yet in Beijing lately, officials have made a point of calling their country a “near Arctic” state. China is increasingly casting a hungry gaze north: Its companies are exploring for oil and resources that can be mined, its diplomats are making friends with Nordic countries – with the notable exception of Canada – and its yuan are paying for polar research projects in the Antarctic and Norway.

Most importantly, Chinese vessels have nosed into the ever-more accessible Arctic waters of the Northeast Passage, slicing an icy path across the top of Russia and Scandinavia that stands to alter the way commodities flow to Asia and manufactured goods return to Europe.

“We expect a lot from China, because China is the major consumer in Asia,” said Mikhail Belkin, assistant director-general of Rosatomflot, the Russian company operating the nuclear-powered icebreakers that lead commercial ships through the Northeast Passage (or Northern Sea Route, as it is also called).

China-bound commodities are already flowing through the passage – gas condensate, liquefied natural gas, iron ore, coal – and Beijing wants to start sending consumer goods back the other way.

“What we expect to happen – I hope this will happen in 2014 – is the Chinese will start sending their container cargoes through the Northern Sea Route,” Mr. Belkin said.

China’s northern yearnings spring from a philosophy that the Arctic belongs not just to those countries that can claim sovereignty over it, but also to those who have the most use for it.

“Arctic resources, in my opinion, will be allocated according to the needs of the world, not only owned by certain countries,” Qu Tanzhou, director of the Chinese Arctic and Antarctic Administration, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. “We cannot simply say that this is yours and this is mine.”

China has already won official observer status at the Arctic Council, which gives it sway in the development of pan-Arctic policy.

It’s also setting its own “boots on the ground,” traditionally the way countries have established both expertise and dominance in polar regions. China’s icebreaker, the Xue Long – or “Snow Dragon” – has crossed the Arctic Ocean and even touched Canadian waters at Tuktoyaktuk. A second icebreaker is under construction and a third is likely.

Earlier this year, China and Iceland signed a free-trade agreement, in part due to Iceland’s strategic location in the heart of Arctic shipping lanes. In Reykjavik, China has built a giant embassy with space for 500 people. Last year, Chinese state-owned oil company CNOOC, with a local partner, won the right to explore for oil off Iceland’s shores.

In Canada, meanwhile, Chinese companies have quietly garnered stakes in two operating mines – molybdenum in Yukon, nickel in northern Quebec – and a pair of exploration projects. Still, Chinese officials say they feel a chill from Ottawa. “I personally feel that co-operation and communication between Canada and China is comparatively less than others,” Mr. Qu said. “If one day the Canadian government welcomes us to co-operate on developing our scientific research over there, we would be very happy to join.”

But it’s the Northeast Passage, not research, that is Beijing’s top priority. The shortcut between Asia and Europe, which runs along the northern coast of Russia (a route completely different from the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago), cuts 5,200 kilometres and nine days off the normal southern route through the Strait of Malacca and the Suez Canal. The number of ships (most of them Russian) that sailed through the passage almost doubled between 2012 and 2013, according to the Northern Sea Route Information Office in Murmansk, Russia.

Last year, a Chinese commercial vessel sailed through for the first time. When the Yong Sheng docked at the Dutch port of Rotterdam carrying a load of crane parts for a new container terminal there, COSCO, the Chinese marine giant that owns the ship, boasted that the Northeast Passage stands “to be the new trunk route of Euro-Asia trade.”

In 2013, Huigen Yang, director-general of the Polar Research Institute of China, told foreign media that some 5 to 15 per cent of China’s international trade would pass through the Northeast Passage by 2020. The midpoint of that estimate, 10 per cent of the trade, would be worth nearly $700-billion.

Just how many Chinese ships might sail those waters, however, remains unclear – the Arctic, after all, is a hard place to operate, with a limited shipping season and unpredictable weather that can wreak havoc on schedules that need to be kept. Container shipping is a particularly difficult prospect, since there are virtually no major delivery ports for ships to call at between China and Europe.

A lack of emergency and repair services is another big downside, although Russia is investing heavily to remedy that. Icebreakers can only guide so much traffic, too: Mr. Belkin acknowledges that only about 10 million tonnes of cargo per year can flow through the Northeast Passage. That’s far more than the 1.36 million that passed through in 2013, but only a fraction of China’s trade: It exported 56 million tonnes of steel alone in 2012.

This has led to skepticism. Frédéric Lasserre, a professor of geography at Laval University, offers a blunt counterpoint: “China’s interest for Arctic shipping is mainly government-fed and extremely theoretical. Many shipping firms do not buy it.”

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