China sets its sights on the Northwest Passage as a potential trade boon

northwest passage

The gradual disappearance of year-round sea ice in the Northwest Passage due to climate change has opened up the possibility of regular shipping routes.

China is looking to exploit the Northwest Passage, the fabled shortcut from the Pacific to the Atlantic, according to state-run media, with the world’s biggest trader in goods publishing a shipping guide to the route.

The seaway north of Canada, which could offer a quicker journey from China to the US east coast than via the Panama Canal or Cape Horn, was sought by European explorers for centuries, including by the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845.

Even now it remains ice-bound for much of the year, but global warming and the retreat of Arctic sea ice are making it more accessible, and Beijing sees it as an opportunity to reshape global trade flows.

China’s maritime safety administration earlier this month published a 356-page, Chinese-language guide including nautical charts and descriptions of ice conditions for the Northwest Passage, said the China Daily newspaper, which is published by the government.

“There will be ships with Chinese flags sailing through this route in the future,” it quoted administration spokesman Liu Pengfei as saying.

“Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transportation and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flows and resources exploitation,” he added.

Canada uses Franklin expedition wreck to boost North-West Passage claim

Canada regards the Northwest Passage as part of its internal waters, while some other countries consider it an international strait.

Beijing – which is embroiled in territorial disputes of its own in the South and East China Seas – on Wednesday declined to say where it stood on the issue.

“The Chinese side will make a suitable decision according to various factors,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing in Beijing.

In Ottawa, a spokesman for foreign minister Stephane Dion said no automatic right of transit passage existed in the waterways of the Northwest Passage.

“We welcome navigation that complies with our rules and regulations. Canada has an unfettered right to regulate internal waters,” Joseph Pickerill said by email.

Last year, Chinese shipping company COSCO said it plans to launch regular services through the Arctic Ocean to Europe by way of the “Northeast Passage”, another Arctic shipping route north of Russia.

COSCO ships travelled that route in 2013 and 2015. State-owned COSCO has since merged with another company, China Shipping Group.

“Many countries have noticed the financial and strategic value of Arctic Ocean passages. China has also paid much attention,” Wu Yuxiao, one of the co-authors of the new guide, was quoted by China Daily as saying.

China does not border the Arctic and has no territorial claim to any of it, but joined the Arctic Council as an observer two years ago.

Observers say Beijing recognises the area’s potential for scientific research and its strategic value.|


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