Opportunities and challenges along the Ice Silk Road
A crucial task for China in the Arctic is to guarantee both sustainable and profitable development in the most sensitive region of the world.
Shipping patterns, Nordic-China investment cooperation and scientific research collaboration are among China’s priorities discussed by experts at a recent Arctic seminar series at Fudan University.
Cargo volume on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the main transport corridor in the Arctic and part of the Northeast Passage that leads to the Bering Strait and the Pacific, will grow significantly by 2030 as a result of Russian gas, oil, metal exports to eastern markets and the Pacific.
But industry analysts say the main benefits will likely go to Russian carriers and icebreakers — the NSR lies entirely within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Any bulk cargo carried by Chinese ships will be sporadic and not enough to form stable and reliable business.
Climate change is causing ice loss, boosting business hopes of shipping more goods to Europe through the Arctic by 2040-50. At the same time, disappearing multi-year ice will be replaced by one-year ice, which is far less stable and poses a greater threat to shipping.
Container shipping also needs port handling facilities and in the case of the Ice Silk Road there is an open question as to what kind of goods are suitable to carry safely through the freezing temperatures. Recent industry estimations show that 220 navigable days a year are needed to give the combined model of the NSR-Suez shipping the green light.
The Ice Silk Road concept includes Chinese investment that is welcomed in the Nordic Arctic areas.
Aquaculture in Norway, bio-plants in Finland and Arctic tourism in Sweden and Iceland, in combination with the overall Nordic need for upgraded logistics corridors offer tremendous potential for a Chinese presence in the region.
Beijing already has a strong record of accomplishments in financing “green” solutions in Lapland biodiesel production and sustainable tourism infrastructure construction. This shows China’s ability to follow strict environmental rules, including in technology.
Chinese-Nordic ties can prosper if internationally recognized Arctic investment standards are formed and implemented by the Arctic Council. The Shanghai Forum 2018 includes a special Arctic section, which offers a good opportunity to discuss and test different views among experts.
Economic development in the Arctic goes hand-in-hand with scientific exploration.
China’s capabilities in remote detection of ships and iceberg monitoring still require improvements to match Europe, including Russia.
Integrated remote sensing and forecasting systems for Arctic operations in combination with Arctic big data development are in high demand from the oil industry, search and rescue and the shipping industry.
This will define the speed and scale of regional development in the future. To ensure continuous financial support for scientific exploration, China needs to form a working mechanism to address both scientific interest and industry demands to maximize the effect of state and private investments.
The coming year in Arctic affairs offers China many opportunities on different levels to start implementing a long-term, complex and up-to-date strategy. The main thing now — grasp the opportunity.
The author is a visiting scholar at Fudan Development Institute and an Arctic researcher at Norway’s Akvaplan-niva, a private research and consultancy company. Shanghai Daily condensed the article.