China has launched its first domestically built icebreaking vessel named Xuelong 2, reflecting its determination to strengthen its research and exploration in the Arctic region.
Now it looks like China is becoming an increasing important player in the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from Northern Europe to East Asia via the Arctic. China's role in the Arctic is likely to help Beijing and Russia find an array of opportunities to move closer to each other.
In 2013, Yong Sheng became the first Chinese merchant ship to complete a voyage via the Arctic region. Earlier this month, another Chinese cargo ship specially built for polar expeditions completed its maiden voyage through the Arctic Circle. The vessel, named Tianen, can plow through ice 80 centimeters thick, a further step in the development of the NSR.
Connecting China's Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative with shipping routes in the Arctic and Russia's NSR project is not a new idea for either China or Russia, but efforts in this direction have moved quite slowly for many reasons, including immature technology. Now the time is increasingly ripe for the two countries to renew their cooperation in the NSR project.
Technological cooperation needs to be a focus of this effort. There are some technical difficulties in areas such as the development of nuclear-powered icebreaking cargo vessels. Mutually beneficial cooperation in the NSR project could be an opportunity for the two countries to build closer ties in technological cooperation.
Further, China and Russia should promote infrastructure cooperation within the Arctic Circle, such as ports and railways. The two countries need to find an effective way to promote cooperation between the B&R Initiative and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
However, as ice in the NSR melts, the development of the waterway will also inevitably bring some new challenges, including China's increasing presence in Russia's transportation sphere, as well as environmental protection considerations following the unprecedented melting of ice.
The two countries still have far to go in the development of the NSR project, but challenge and opportunity are always two sides of the same coin.
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