On Your Marks… The Opening Stages of Arctic Shipping

Skyline of the port city of Dalian, northeastern China [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
With much of the Arctic Ocean becoming ice free for longer periods of time during the summer months, there has been a growing amount of enthusiasm from both governments and industries about the possibilities for expanded Arctic shipping. At the same time, preparations are being made to implement legal safeguards in anticipation of increased ship traffic, especially in the regions north of Siberia but also in other parts of the region.

With the largest coastline bordering the Arctic Ocean, Russia is especially upbeat about the possibility of mass maritime shipping via the Northern Sea Route (NSR), with one representative from the country’s maritime transport authority, Rosmorrechflot, suggesting that cargo transit in the NSR could reach twelve to fourteen million tonnes this year, up from 9.93 million in 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been candid about the potential role of the NSR in developing the country’s economy, noting during his ‘state of the nation’ speech in March of this year that the NSR was ‘key to the development of the Russian Arctic and the regions of the Far East’ and that shipping through the sea route would reach eighty million tonnes by 2025. Unsurprisingly, when Moscow published its governmental policy [In Russian; draft English translation here] on the Arctic in early 2009, a plan approved by then-President Dmitri Medvedev, the NSR was prominently featured, specifically the development of the NSR for international navigation, under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation and in accordance with international treaties.

At present, transits of the NSR, even in high summer, still require ships to be escorted by Russian icebreakers, but in the coming decades that may no longer be the case as climate change continues to erode the Arctic ice cap. Russia has been open to ‘internationalising’ the NSR, meaning allowing for the widespread use of the route by international vessels, looking ahead to the possibilities of collecting duties from foreign vessels seeking to use the waterway for cross-regional shipping. However, President Putin has pushed for the exclusive right of Russian tankers to transport fossil fuels via the Northern Sea Route. The question, however is which nations could and will take advantage of the NSR and other emerging shipping routes.

China has so far factored greatly [In Chinese] into Russian plans for the development of its NSR Arctic shipping, especially since 2014 when Western protests over Moscow’s involvement in the Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine resulted in economic sanctions against the Putin government. The two governments have spoken of an Ice Silk Road, (bingshang sichou zhilu 冰上丝绸之路), which would be connected to Beijing’s expanding Belt and Road initiative and bring out faster and cheaper Asia-Europe maritime transit. One centrepiece of the emerging ‘ice road’ has been the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas Project, which has been supported by Chinese investment and recorded its first formal shipments of LNG supplies to Europe last month. Beijing has trumpeted [In Chinese] the opening of Yamal in December of last year as the first major component of the Arctic wing of the Belt and Road.

China is also preparing to develop ports which could become Arctic shipping nodes in the near-future, including Qingdao, which is developing as a potential hub for various Arctic products including seafood, and Dalian, which was identified as an emerging Arctic shipping port at the China-Nordic Arctic Research Council (CNARC) conference in that city last year. Dalian was also the port from which the Chinese cargo vessel Yongsheng made its first successful transit of the NSR in 2013. Despite the fact that Sino-Russian Arctic partnership has been largely economic in nature, the United States has become concerned about falling behind in the region as the Arctic continues to develop.

Meanwhile, this week also saw the announcement of a decree by the Putin government that Arctic shipping through the NSR should reach the highly ambitious level of eighty million tonnes per year by 2024, one year earlier than previously reported.