China: An Arctic power?November 14, 2011
As the Arctic climate changes it is becoming ever more viable as a commercial center. Vast troves of mineral resources are believed to be held within the Arctic’s relatively shallow waters. Of even greater consequence, the fabled Northwest Passage and the less well known but more viable Northern Sea Route are becoming open to commercial maritime traffic. These sea routes need not be fully ice free to be navigable – ice breaker escorts can extend the period of transit beyond those few weeks or months that need no escort.
The following chart shows the value of these potential routes – the time and distance saved from traditional shipping routes are considerable. Add to that the fact that these routes border relatively stable political regions and do not risk the piracy and warfare dangers that hamper the southern routes.
China certainly understands the geostrategic value of the Arctic. China owns and operates six Arctic icebreakers and is constructing six more (compare this to the woeful state of the US icebreaker fleet – just three ships, two of which are sidelined for repair and the third only useful for thin ice conditions). China, despite its location far from the Arctic, has nonetheless been lobbying for a Permanent Observer status in the Arctic Council. Last week, China gained an important ally in this goal as Greenland joined Denmark in lobbying for a Chinese seat at the table. China, seemingly, has a greater appreciation of the importance of the Arctic than does the US, which actually has a physical presence in the region. The US does not need to try to match China in icebreakers; all we need to do is to fully support Canada – our most important ally and the nation with the most total Arctic coastline (when you count all the Canadian islands) – in their Arctic policy and claims. US naval power allied with Canadian interests should dominate Arctic discussions.