Go for Launch: China’s Second Icebreaker Readied for its First Missions

Model of the original Xuelong icebreaker at the Hong Kong Science Museum [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
This week, China’s second icebreaker, and the first to be built indigenously, was officially launched at Jiangnan Shipyard [In Chinese] near Shanghai. The vessel expected to be fully ready [In Chinese] for its first mission at some point in 2019, after undergoing field testing and final refurbishing. The Xuelong 2 (雪龙2) or Snow Dragon 2, was built by China State Shipbuilding Corp., in cooperation with the Helsinki-based shipbuilding firm Aker Arctic, with construction begun in December 2016.

The ship will be first of its type to use ‘two-way’ icebreaking capabilities, meaning the ability to fracture ice with both its bow and stern, and is reportedly able to break up ice to 1.5 metres in thickness at speeds of approximately 2-3 knots (or 3.7-5.6 kph), with a maximum speed of fifteen knots (9.3 kph), and is able to operate in temperatures as low as -30ºC. The ship has a length of 122.5 metres, a displacement of approximately 13,990 tonnes, and is capable of supporting a crew of up to ninety persons. According to the Chinese online journal Science and Technology Daily, (Keji ribao shegong 科技日报社公) the Xuelong 2 possesses [In Chinese] sophisticated monitoring and sensor equipment and communications technology, while conforming to strict environmental standards.

The new vessel serves two major Chinese polar policy initiatives, the first being the need to develop domestic icebreaking technology, and the second for the country to be able to conduct scientific missions at both poles simultaneously. The vessel’s older, larger sibling, the Xuelong, was built in Ukraine in 1993 before being transferred to China, and was subject to an extensive refit in 2007. The Xuelong 2 is expected to operate as a versatile scientific vessel, capable of more varied missions in the areas of atmospheric studies, biology and oceanography. Both ships will operate under the aegis of the Polar Research Institute of China (Zhongguo Jidi Yanjiu Zhongxin 中国极地研究中心) and will be used for future Arctic and Antarctic scientific missions.

[Diagram by Malte Humpert / The Arctic Institute/Centre for Circumpolar Studies]
Beijing confirmed in June of this year that it was seeking to build a heavier icebreaker in future which would be nuclear powered, unlike the two Snow Dragons. This may possibly be accomplished with Russian assistance, given that country’s extensive experience with building nuclear icebreaking vessels. Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, had built ten nuclear icebreakers, with the first of three new LK-60Ya (ЛК-60Я) class nuclear icebreaking ships, the Arktika (Арктика), expected to enter full service next year.

However, it remains unclear at this early stage whether China will attempt to build its third icebreaker domestically or with foreign assistance. According to reporting by the Chinese news service Global Times, an official tender for the nuclear icebreaker contract was issued in late June by the China National Nuclear Corporation (中国核工业集团公司 Zhongguo He Gongye Jituan Gongsi). As China’s January 2018 governmental white paper on the Arctic stated, the country is seeking to make use of newly available technologies to build ‘new-type icebreakers’ so that China can remain engaged in vital research in the areas of exploration and research.

The original Xuelong [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
It has been an active summer for China’s Arctic interests, as in addition to the launch of the Xuelong 2, the Chinese cargo vessel Tian’en, (天恩) operated by China’s Cosco shipping, completed its run through the Northern Sea Route (NSR) this month, docking at ports in France and the Netherlands before traveling on to Sweden. This summer, Cosco ships were on track to complete five transits in the NSR, including by the vessel Tian Qi (天琪), which left the Finnish port of Kotka en route to Qingdao and expected to arrive later this month. This month, it was also announced that the Russian gas company Novotek would be partnering with Cosco to establish a new company, Maritime Arctic Transport LLC (Морской арктический транспор), dedicated to the building of liquefied natural gas transport vessels for the Arctic.

Finally, this week saw great power summit diplomacy at work between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, when the two leaders met at an economic conference in Vladivostok on the eve on the joint Vostok-2018 war games, to discuss further economic cooperation, including potential investment in the Russian Far East, and later feasted on pancakes and caviar with vodka. The Arctic is shaping up as one of the areas which may see greater Sino-Russian political and economic cooperation.

[The editor would like to thank Malte Humpert for his assistance in the preparation of this post.]