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Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, is shown docked in Shanghai in 2012. The ship is currently on a journey through Canada’s Northwest Passage.Pei Xin/The Associated Press

A Chinese research icebreaker is making its first ever voyage through the Northwest Passage in what one expert believes to be a move to lay the foundations for China to sail cargo ships over the top of Canada.

The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, is currently in the Davis Strait and should be entering Canadian waters in Lancaster Sound on Friday or Saturday as part of a mission to circumnavigate the Arctic, according to University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert, who has been tracking the Chinese government icebreaker via satellite imagery.

"This is the first time that an official Chinese vessel has gone through the Northwest Passage," Prof. Huebert told The Globe and Mail on Thursday. "It is a new Chinese presence. It is very significant to note how the Chinese are becoming a presence near and in our Arctic waters."

Canada demands foreign vessels ask permission before sailing through the Northwest Passage, an Arctic route the Canadian government considers internal waters. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's office said Canada granted its approval on the basis that China was conducting scientific research.

"Canada welcomes navigation in its Arctic waters, provided that ships comply with laws of safety, security and the protection of the environment," press secretary Adam Austen said in a statement to The Globe. "In this case, Canada approved an application from the MV Xue Long to conduct Marine Scientific Research – joined by a team of Canadian scientists who are on board to participate in research activities." He added that a Canadian ice navigator is also aboard to help steer the Snow Dragon safely through the Arctic waters.

The Arctic is a potentially lucrative opportunity where warming temperatures are melting new openings for the movement of goods through waters where Canada has few resources to respond to potential disasters, such as oil spills. Experts in maritime safety say there is no emergency infrastructure in Canada, Russia or U.S. Arctic waters to deal with fuel spills or the breaking up of a vessel. The Arctic region also lacks infrastructure to adequately dispose of bilge water, sewage and solid waste.

Chinese state media have called the Northwest Passage a "golden waterway" for future trade; 90 per cent of China's exports are by ship. China has no Arctic territory but has been attempting to play a larger role in the region, and gained observer status at the Arctic Council in 2013.

Prof. Huebert, who teaches at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said he believes China is using the Snow Dragon – which is China's sole icebreaker – to test the feasibility of moving container ships through the melting Arctic seas. When countries typically conduct Arctic research, Prof. Huebert said, their vessels are confined to specific locations, but the Snow Dragon's route has taken it from Asia across Russian and Scandinavian waters and into Canada's Lancaster Sound.

"If you look at the Snow Dragon, what they are doing is they are literally circulating around the Arctic and it looks like that is more important than any overall science plan," he said. "Seemingly what they are letting drive this particular voyage is the ability to say they have gone around the pole."

The advantage of the Arctic passage is a shorter route allowing Chinese cargo ships to provide faster delivery without having to worry about monsoons in the Indian Ocean, armed pirates or paying fees to pass through the Suez or Panama canals. In early July, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev agreed to explore co-operation on the northern sea route to build a "Silk Road on Ice."

Prof. Huebert said the danger of China's keen interest in shipping goods through the Northwest Passage is the erosion of Canadian sovereignty, particularly since the United States disputes Canada's claims. Washington argues the passage is an international strait that should offer rights of transit passage.

Canada has made a strong international case for its claims to sovereignty in the Northwest Passage, Prof. Huebert said, but he stressed it needs to be backed up by new patrol ships that can operate in the icy waters and better surveillance.

China's Arctic plans fit with a broader effort to disrupt long-standing global trading by pressing its economic might into creating new shortcuts. It is, for example, attempting to remake Silk Road-era corridors for the modern age, sending the first container train from eastern China to Iran last year – a land journey 30 days shorter than by water.

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