Staunton, April 27 – China’s ambitious icebreaker construction program and its plans to build Chinese docks in five ports in the Arctic may help Russia develop its Northern Sea Route in the short term but create the possibility that China may either come to dominate that Russian route or even allow Beijing to open its own route there, Vladimir Volgayev says.
The military analyst for Sovershenno Sekretno provides details on the rapid expansion of China’s northern fleet, with two modern icebreakers of its own design, a third on the way, and other support vessels coming into service, and its plans for building Chinese docks at Murmansk, Sabetta, Arkhangelsk, Tiksi, and Uzden (sovsekretno.ru/articles/polyarnyy-shelkovyy-put/).
Up to now, Volgayev says, China has relied on Russia for icebreaker support and port facilities, and its own efforts are still helping Moscow reach its ambitious trade goals for the Northern Sea Route. But it is already clear, he suggests, that China is not interested in playing second fiddle to anyone in this area and may soon challenge Russia’s dominance there.
One indication of China’s expansive intentions was its response to American suggestions that it cooperate with Washington against Moscow in the Northern Sea Route. Beijing has rejected such ideas out of hand, not because it is committed to Russian dominance but because it doesn’t feel it will need to depend on the US which currently has only one icebreaker in service.
Beijing’s expanding interest in the Northern Sea Route, the analyst says, reflects not only cost calculations but also the belief that Russian military infrastructure along that waterway has already made it safer than using the Suez Canal which is surrounded by increasingly unstable countries.
But the Chinese leadership is also interested in the route and eventual dominance of it because of another calculation. Russia uses the route almost exclusively for the shipment of bulk cargos of raw materials. The Chinese believe that the future will be dominated by container traffic and that they, not the Russians, will be in a position to dominate that flow.
All this leaves Moscow in a difficult position. On the one hand, it needs Chinese investment to achieve its own goals along the Northern Sea Route; but on the other, it and other world powers as well can easily see that Chinese goals are larger than the ones that Moscow would like them to be, ultimately if not now a security challenge.