Arctic Commercial Shipping and the Strategic Significance of the Northern Sea Route

Issue Brief

Arctic Commercial Shipping and the Strategic Significance of the Northern Sea Route

In early August 2013, the general cargo vessel M/V Yong Sheng — a ship operated by the China Ocean Shipping Group Company and weighing in at 19,150 deadweight tonnes — sailed from Dalian in northeastern China, bound for Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Ordinarily this would be another unremarkable voyage amongst thousands made by Chinese-flagged merchant vessels every year. On this occasion, however, the Yong Sheng sailed via the Northern Sea Route (NSR) rather than via the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal, making it the first-ever Chinese vessel to do so.1 Normally, the passage via Suez would take a vessel of this type some 48 days, but her route across the top of the world reduced the transit time to 35 days. This reduction of 13 days will translate into significant savings in fuel costs, canal fees and the costs associated with embarkation of an armed security team to deter and defend against the possibility of a pirate attack while transiting the high risk area in the Indian Ocean.

Due to the significant numbers of vessels that have transited the NSR in recent years, this particular crossing would seem at first glance to be a relatively unremarkable event. However, the voyage was very deliberately planned and timed, as it occurred just three months after China secured ‘permanent observer’ status at the Arctic Council. This is the international body that facilitates high-level intergovernmental exchanges between member states to promote cooperation and coordination on matters pertaining to the protection of the Arctic environment and sustainable economic development of this unique and sensitive geo-space. In effect, by applying for, and being granted, permanent observer status of the Arctic Council and then dispatching a vessel to transit the NSR at the earliest opportunity (due to sufficient pack-ice retreat), China has made an unmistakable statement – she has recognized the current and future geopolitical and economic importance of the Arctic and regards the region and the NSR as strategically important to its national interest.