On April 5th China’s Maritime Safety Administration released a 356 page “Guidance on Arctic Navigation in the Northwest Route 2015 to the Northwest Passage” – referring to the passage of which a large segment lies within Canada’s Arctic Archipelago (see related article Whither Canada’s Arctic Bonanza).
The Northwest Passage is now viable with global warming opening up the previously nearly impossible transit. The first commercial vessel to transit the Northwest Passage was the Exxon tanker SS Manhattan, in 1969. The tanker was built in Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts and retrofitted with an “icebreaker” bow to make the voyage with assistance from accompanying icebreakers. The purpose of the venture was to test the feasibility of transporting Alaska’s North Slope oil to the US East Coast. The tanker made the voyage to Prudhoe Bay and returned to the East Coast with one 55-gallon drum of North Slope oil.
More recently Montreal-based shipowner Fednav has deployed the purpose-built icebreaking bulk carrier Nunavik to transport copper and nickel ore from the Quebec region of the same name to China. In 2014 Nunavik became the first cargo ship to make an unescorted voyage through the Northwest Passage. The vessel loaded with nickel ore left Deception Bay, Canada, on September 19th and passed Point Barrow, Alaska, on September 30th. After passing through the Bering Strait, the Nunavik headed to the Port of Bayuquan, located in the northeast corner of Bohai Gulf, which undoubtedly caught the attention of China’s Maritime Safety Administration. According to Fednav the Northwest Passage saved upwards to 40% on the transit distance and obviously could do the same for Chinese ships. For example, a voyage from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Arctic route is 2,800 nautical miles shorter than going by the Suez Canal.
Beijing is now said to be encouraging Chinese vessels to take the route.
With the release of the “route guide”, China Ministry of Transport Liu Pengfei said, “Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation.”
Of course this isn’t just about saving a few clicks. China would like to see the Silk Road add a Walrus Way to their global map. Beijing has beome one of the biggest mining investors in Greenland and has a free trade deal in play with Iceland.